A Harpur and Iles novel. Ralph Ember is determined to live down his nickname, Panicking, when he sets up his own drugs syndicate. But when an afternoon with his mistress ends in bloodshed, Ralph realizes there are others with the same plan who will not stand for competition. Who are his rivals?
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Penzler Pick, June 2001: The irony-laced police procedurals of British writer Bill James are as much an acquired taste as a glass of Guinness stout--and equally inimitable. In such novels as The Lolita Man, Eton Crop, and Kill Me, the dueling coppers Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and his superior, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Isles, keep a wary eye on one another, never sure which way the winds of bloody-mindedness are blowing.
In Panicking Ralph, the titular Ralph Ember is the owner of a disreputable private drinking club called The Monty. Full or not, it's a home-away-from-home for shady dealmakers and the thugs who congregate in their wake. Ralph tries "to keep The Monty a cheery place, despite occasional blood-soaked affrays and harsh tragedies."
His nickname derives from his well-known habit of getting his knickers in a twist whenever the going starts to get rough. Or, as Harpur puts it as he and his colleagues debate what the local villains might be up to, "Ember oscillates between cold sweats and fierce ambition and even guts."
In the opening pages, as Ralph's married mistress is murdered before his eyes during an assignation on the beach, we see him run much, much faster than she can: "Fleetness when it mattered was among his flairs." Later on, when he returns to collect Christine's body, he tries not to think about his position as avenger, that it will now be "impossible to dodge the role in the way some might claim he had dodged this afternoon." After all, it had been he they were after all along--her murder was a mistake.
Had she never strayed from the loving embrace of her husband, a purveyor of pet care products, her unseeing eyes would not now be caked with mud and Ralph would not be desperately trying to figure out how to take proper action without tipping his hand or incriminating himself. Always, Harpur and Iles are in the background, circling the territory and making sure that what goes down in their jurisdiction is never too much of a surprise. Like Ian Rankin, James understands how the line between those who keep the law and those who flout it is so often blurred. --Otto PenzlerFrom the Author:
With the publication of Kill Me in paperback...there are now seventeen books in the Harpur and Iles series. I publish one a year and very occasionally two. The next, Pay Days, comes out in hardback in 2001 in the UK and the US. I had no idea when I started in the mid-1980s that the series would run to this number. I won't say, as some authors do, that the characters took over. But having established my pair, I'm reluctant to waste them, in any sense. I'll probably go to at least twenty.
They are two high-ranking police officers. Harpur, the main figure by a whisker, is a detective chief superintendent, and Iles, his boss, an Assistant Chief Constable. In an unnamed English city, they fight organized crime—mainly drug dealing—through their own, not always wholly legal methods. In particular, Iles's unspoken work philosophy is 'the end justifies the means'. He is believed to have murdered two villains who got off in court after killing an undercover detective (see Halo Parade). This episode constantly recurs in his thinking (see In Good Hands and Eton Crop). Neither he nor Harpur is on the take, but they'll do almost anything to put away some of those they believe crooked (and whom the reader knows are crooked): only some—Iles runs alliances with a few Mr. Bigs for the sake of peace on the street, to the nattering despair of his Chief. Harpur does try to control Iles's savagery now and then, without notable success. Harpur's moral authority over Iles is flimsy, not just because he is lower in rank, but because he has had an affair with Iles's wife, and Iles knows it.
My aim in these books is to humanize as much as I can both crooks and cops: that is, to give them full characterization, not put them in roles as representatives of evil and good. This can bring them very close on the ethical scale and, I hope, produces good suspense and, above all, much not necessarily comfortable laughter. The reviewers who please me most find the books not only taut but funny.—Bill James
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