Crime Writer John Harvey on Missing Children, Western Movies and Rhythmic Prose

John Harvey's new mystery novel FAR CRY comes out in June; it is his 100th book. Harvey's much-lauded Charlie Resnick novels are among Britain's best police procedurals; his novel LONELY HEARTS was named by The Times as one of the 100 Greatest Crime Novels of the Century. FAR CRY features the duo of Will Grayson and Helen Walker. Harvey lives in London.

John, thank you for talking with me. Your new book, FAR CRY, has a horrific
premise: a woman suffers the abduction of not one, but two daughters,
years apart. Did you envision that the book would become a deep
examination of the psychology of that loss?

I don't see what else it could be. Unless you leave the woman permanently in the background as a character and concentrate solely on the investigations.

The ideas behind FAR CRY came out of a conversation with the writer Jill Dawson, who lives in the Fenland where much of my book is set, and whose home is close to a village where an abduction and murder of two
schoolgirls had happened several years before. Affected by this, as a mother of two young children as well as a writer, Jill had written a novel, WATCH ME DISAPPEAR, based around her responses to these murders.
When Jill and I met and had our conversation, the disappearance of a British child on holiday was very much in the news; her parents believed their daughter had been abducted but was still alive and made the decision to use the media as a way of securing her release -something which backfired on them and made them suspects in the eyes of many people.

Jill and I talked about the ways in which parents might react in such situations, the emotional havoc it wreaks on their own relationships and the degrees to which they might become obsessed not solely with their own loss, but with the wider area of child abuse and abusers. We talked about the possibility of writing a book which explored those issues and I came away convinced that was what I wanted to try and do.

Before starting to write, I talked through my initial ideas with a friend who is a very experienced psychotherapist,
just to check that the lines on which I was planning base my story were credible.

It was always my intention to place the mother at the heart of the book and, in retrospect, I regret that she isn't as central - doesn't have as much space - as I'd intended. The scenes with her and her missing daughter were always going to be the big challenge for me as a writer - carrying them off convincingly. The are the most
important scenes in the book for me, the ones that I can get excited about having written,though, of course, they're very short - a tiny part of the book as a whole if you're counting pages.

An epigraph from Macbeth appears before chapter one—the words of MacDuff when he hears that his
family has been slaughtered. Did MacDuff’s character inspire you to write this story, or did you make the connection between your character and Shakespeare’s after the writing?

In no sense a direct inspiration, there's no connection between the stories, but MACBETH is a play I know well and those lines came to me when I was thinking about the book, so that epigraph was in place before I started on chapter 1.

FAR CRY is also a crime novel. Aside from the main storyline, the detectives, Will Grayson and Helen Walker, face endless examples of man’s cruelty. What motivates your detectives (or any detectives,
perhaps) to stay in their jobs in the face of such sadness?

It's an odd question for me as a writer to answer. As the writer of the book, the mover of the plot, I need them to progress the investigation; they do their job because if they don't there's no story, no book. It's like moving chess pieces (or so I assume, since I've never played chess.)

But they're police officers, it's what they do. Come face to face with all manner of awful things and do their jobs. As the writer, I think I have to provide reasons for why, in certain situations, they might do the job badly, be over-zealous et cetera. There are times in this story when Grayson is in error as a police officer and that's because, as a father of two young children himself, he allows himself to become too emotionally involved.

One of the main requirements I have as a writer is to flesh out the lives of these officers, make them believable and, in some ways, attractive, so that the reader will want to accompany them through the investigation.

The women in your book are admirably strong. I don’t really have a question here; I just wanted to thank you for that. :)

Thanks! I try.

There is something existential in the idea of waiting to hear news of a lost person. Did you find it difficult to write scenes from Ruth’s perspective—that is, from her growing hopelessness?

As I've suggested above, the scenes with Ruth were key to me - my particular challenge in this book, to get her right. So they were difficult in a way, but once I'd got them started, once I 'saw' her, they came surprisingly easily. They were what I was primarily interested in, after all. It's the procedural stuff that I find difficult because I find it so boring and the task, which I think I sometimes fall down on, is not to make it boring for the reader too.

Not to sound cliché, but the abduction of a child really is every parent’s nightmare. So why do I, as a parent, find this book so compelling? Do you think your readers might take a certain satisfaction, even as they sympathize, with the fact that it is happening to someone else, someone fictional, and not to them?

You've answered your own question in a way. It's exactly because harm coming to one's own children is such a great fear that the book is compelling. I think it's why readers might sympathise with the parents in the book, but as to whether they will take some satisfaction from the fact it's happening to someone else I can't say.

You are a jazz fan, as is one of your most famous fictional creations, Charlie Resnick. Sue Grafton calls him “complex and capable, a man who not only loves justice, jazz and cats, but who can turn the construction of a sandwich into a work of art.” While I wouldn’t assume that Resnick is a fictional you, I wonder if many of Resnick’s jazz preferences are in fact your own?

More or less. We share a great love of Thelonious Monk, certainly.

You are also a fan of classical music, and on your blog you wrote of its dwindling numbers of fans. Why do you think this musical form, so rich and full of history, is losing popularity?

It could be something to do with the fact that we live in a culture that is increasingly devoted to the easy fix, to instant gratification, that finds things which require a degree of effort and concentration - well, too much effort. It could be something to do with the way music is taught - or not taught - in education. But when I go to concerts in London I'm frequently cheered not just by the fact they are well attended but also that there is a good proportion of young people present. Far less the case in smaller cities like Nottingham, I fear, where it's generally a middle-class, late middle age pursuit.

You are a poet, which is evident in your prose. F. Scott Fitzgerald wove jazz into the very pacing of his diction; do you think that your own love of music and rhythm informs the way that you structure your words on the page?

Maybe, other people - critics - have suggested this is the case, so who am I to disagree! I do think the
fact of my having both written and, as a small press publisher, edited poetry for some 30 years, has - hopefully - given me a sense of the rhythm of a sentence, a phrase, or helped my choice of the right word. I spend more time rewriting my work according to the sound they make in my head that anything else.

Charlie Resnick loves cats. Do you have pets?

Have had cats, off and on, in the past. We have a cat now, really my youngest daughter's. I'm not really an animal person.

You are taking a course on the history of art. Are you enjoying it? Is there an artist or an artistic movement that you particularly admire?

Loving it; enjoying some - most - of the teaching; the relationship/exchanges of views with other students; the forced opportunity to visit more galleries and buy more art books than before. I've found writing academic essays after a 30 year gap quite a chore, but they do concentrate the mind.

I'm particularly drawn to American art of the 50s and 60s, partly because of the way it interlocked with the New
York poetry scene at that time - Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery. So, I respond very positively to Abstract Expressionism - we took my youngest daughter over to New York for the big Jackson Pollock
retrospective when she was less than a year old - and have a strong interest in women painters of the so-called second generation of AEs -Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan. I wrote about the period and included a fictitious woman artist from the period in the novel In a True Light, quite deeply flawed as a book and one of my personal favourites. Right now, I'm preparing an essay on two realist painters from that period, Alice
Neel and Fairfield Porter.

You once taught a film course. What were some of the films that you showed to your class?

Oh God, so long ago! I can remember a few - Out of the Past; Bonnie & Clyde; Le Boucher ; La Femme Infidele; Night Moves.

You’ve written a great many Westerns. What drew you to this genre? Did you admire the work of Zane Gray or Louis L’amour? (My father, a Western fan, always said ‘Gray, yes. L’amour, no.’ :)

My father had a copy of Gray's Riders of the Purple Sage permanently at his beside; I might have tried reading it,but gave up -too verbose. Recently I saw a copy for sale and bought it, but still didn't manage to get beyond a few pages. I've never tried L'amour. I did read some westerns as a kid - Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy books were
big favourites when I was in my early teens, and later I remember reading books by Charles Marquis Warren and Elliott Arnold - Blood Brother? One of my all-time favourite books as a boy was the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual. But what really drew me to the genre was my dad's love of western movies - we went to see almost everything in the genre that ever played north London while I was growing up, and I used to skip school to see B westerns featuring Wild Bill Elliott, George Montgomery and - once, gloriously - Lash LaRue.

As an adult, I've much enjoyed the western fiction of Oakley Hall and, if it counts, Jim Harrison.

But the reason I wrote so many westerns was that there was a market for them when I began writing. I fell in with a few other writers - notably Laurence James and Angus Wells, now both sadly dead before their time -
and we worked together on a number of series, usually under joint pen names.

So now I must ask--are you a fan of John Wayne, or do you think he's overrated?

Like anyone who make a lot of films, Wayne coasts much of the time, but when a director challenges him and brings out his darker side - as Hawks in the marvellous Red River or Ford in The Searchers, he can be pretty wonderful. The by-play between Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Hawks' Rio Bravo is comparable to Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep; and he's moving and believable in The Shootist.

You have a Master’s Degree in American Studies. Have you been to America often? If so, have you travelled widely? What was your favourite
American place?

I used to go over on a small book tour every year when the Resnick books were published there by Henry Holt. So 8 or so trips of that nature. I have good friends in New York City and Washington DC, as well as Downeast Maine and I used to travel regularly to see them, but I've scarcely been to the States at all in the past ten years. This is mainly due to a growing discomfort with and fear of flying and dislike of traveling and the fact that there's no longer a US publisher inviting me over and offering to pay my fare!

I did go to Baltimore last year for the Bouchercon Crime Convention, as I was International Guest of Honour, and was treated royally! It was good to meet a lot of people, book dealers et cetera, who I hadn't seen for a long time and I may go out to San Francisco this October to Bouchercon.

Favourite places ? Downeast Maine. San Francisco. Manhattan. Montana.

Was your time in Montana related to the research you did for your westerns?

Not at all. I visited with my son, Tom, to stay with some friends who live most of the year in DC, but have family and a cabin in Montana.

I’m glad to read that you’ll be bringing back the character of Cordon from
FAR CRY. Cordon was a good cop whose instincts told him when something wasn’t right. Will Cordon stay in touch with Helen Walker, the cop who traveled out to Cornwall to investigate with him?

No such plans as yet, but I'm only on chapter 10 and she is there, isn't she?

Finally, what are you reading these days (aside from your art course homework?)

That aside, not so much!

But this year, so far ...

So He Takes the Dog : Jonathan Buckley

Our Game : John Le Carré

Memoir : John McGahern

Absolute Friends
: John Le Carré

The Looking Glass War : John Le Carré

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
: David Wroblewski

Two terrific books towards the very end of last year :

Truth : Peter Temple

Even The Dogs
: Jon McGregor

John, thank you so much for your time.

To view John Harvey's website, click

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Comment by Julia Buckley on February 25, 2010 at 7:59am
He's one of my favorites, I.J. I find his prose very compelling--maybe that's how he maintains suspense for 500 pages!
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 25, 2010 at 1:29am
John Harvey is really, truly a master. I don't think he's sufficiently appreciated in the U.S.

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