Pros: Hilarious, fascinating, engrossing, surprising, unusual
Cons: A little bit of over-explaining of thoughts at first
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Wolves of Memory is the second of Bill James’s Harpur & Iles mysteries that I’ve read. It takes place before the other, Girls, but James does a fine job of both explaining enough of the references he makes to past events and making each book stand alone that reading them out of order didn’t adversely affect my enjoyment of them at all.
Colin Harpur and Des Iles are two of the strangest detectives you’re likely to come across in your literary wanderings. They have a bizarre
interdependent codependent relationship, and each of them has his insane quirks. Iles is a schizophrenic dandy who often scares people more than the criminals do. Harpur is a solid, methodical man who thinks very highly of Iles, despite having slept with his wife Sarah, a fact of which Iles is prone to reminding him—loudly—at the most inappropriate moments.
This time, Harpur & Iles have been given the task of helping to relocate and protect a police informant and his family. This informant helped to send down several major criminals—even if he really was trying to do the right thing by them and got screwed over by his police contact—and now he and his wife and young children have to be made to take on a whole new identity. Of course, while the parents understand the necessity of this, the children have a bit more trouble with it. And even the parents keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, there’d be a way to explain to their old associates that it wasn’t intentional, and things would be okay, and could go back to the way they were.
Bill James fascinates me as an author. He does several things I’m not accustomed to seeing and makes them work so beautifully it’s amazing to behold. Very few things actually seem to happen in his books, and yet it doesn’t matter. Most of the story takes place in people’s heads. Even action-filled events are told as recollections, something that in most authors’ hands would rob them of their power and energy. And yet what really drives James’s books are the internal workings of the characters, who are so fascinating that you don’t mind and even vastly prefer spending whole chapters inside their oh-so-bizarre heads.
Perhaps the only thing that slightly bugged me in Wolves of Memory as opposed to Girls is that in the latter book, James allowed Harpur & Iles’s strange relationship to speak for itself. In this one Harpur often ruminated on it. At first he seemed to do this a bit much, perhaps over-explaining things that seem, if anything, more interesting if left unexplained. But as the book went on this became streamlined into something that worked quite well.
As was the case for Girls, Wolves of Memory works on a number of levels. It’s incredibly funny and entertaining, yet beneath all that it explores a number of issues. Class, social level, law and criminals, family relationships… it’s all there somewhere. And just when you think James’s skills are purely on the level of characters, he pulls off a surprising yet wholly natural ending that twists things quite beautifully.
I always find myself wanting to quote from his books when I review them, because there are single lines I come across in them that are truly amazing. But one of the things that’s very different about his work is that these lines are so beautiful not in a one-off manner, but because of several intricate pages of setup and back-and-forth dialogue—so to take them out of that context just doesn’t work. Suffice it to say that I could read dozens of H&I mysteries (thankfully there are actually quite a few) and never grow tired of James’s unique and delicious style!