Darkness, Darkness by John Harvey
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
The final outing for John Harvey’s Nottingham police detective, Charlie Resnick, concerns a murder that happened 30 years before, during the epochal 1984-5 miners’ strike. As the bulldozers move in to flatten former homes of former minders, a body is found: a woman missing since December 1984, activist wife of a miner who had continued working.
For anyone not around at the time, those dark days are hard to explain. I was in my first job, and was a bit of a union activist myself. I remember a couple of Welsh miners who came to address one of our union meetings and raise money. I won a brass miner’s lamp in a raffle.
The strike originated in the Yorkshire coal field and spread to the rest of the country. National Union of Mineworkers leader, Arthur Scargill, was warning the country that Thatcher’s government wanted to close down the British coal industry and buy in cheaper coal from abroad. The government issued unconvincing denials. They were closing pits while there was still coal in the ground, claiming they were “uneconomic”. Well, compared to cheap and dirty coal from Poland, maybe they were. Thing about a pit, once you stop working it, it fills with water and becomes impossible to go back to. There was no reopening the deep pits when the price of coal went up.
I have mixed feelings, of course. The impact of the closure of the coal industry was catastrophic, destroying communities and taking jobs and pensions away from generations. It was the beginning of the end of the postwar consensus that had seen a decrease in inequality. Dating from then, inequality started to grow again, reaching obscene levels today. On the other hand, what a terrible way to make a living. Breathing coal dust, working in the dark, at risk from flooding, cave-ins, and explosions, vibration white finger. Which is before we get to the fact that we probably ought to have been leaving all the carbon in the ground, starting then, and including the oil and gas, as well.
So the strike was national, eventually, and the government fought it through the courts, and introduced laws that made it harder for strikes to happen. The stick they hit teachers with now, the low turnout on strike ballots, was designed-in to the anti-union laws they passed then, which insisted that strikes could only be called following a postal ballot.
Flying pickets, police bussed in from all over the country, and scabs, especially in Nottinghamshire, where (eventually) a splinter union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, was formed. The UDM broke the strike, believing the empty promises of the Thatcher government, and eventually they were all made redundant, too.
A murky world, in which people and money are smuggled around the country, and the notion of policing by consent is revealed as an illusion. The police were there to protect the interests of the powerful elite against the people. Instead of showing solidarity with their fellow working people, they were waving their bonus cash in the faces of pickets.
So Charlie Resnick, working as a civilian consultant in semi-retirement, is pulled in to investigate a 30-year-old cold case. There are parallels between Resnick and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, who also ended up working in a cold case unit, and also loves the jazz.
A fine read, though a depressing reminder of a horrible time.
From a detective at the end of his literary career to one close to the beginning of his. For a more pure form of escapism, consider Cormoran Strike, a private detective based in Denmark Street in London. The Silk Worm is J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith’s second outing, and is as enjoyable as the first, which I reviewed here.
Strike, a scruffy, one-legged batman with side-kick Robin, his PA, is now enjoying the fruits of his success in the first novel. In demand, having to turn away work, and slowly getting to the point where he can pay Robin a decent salary and perhaps clear his debts.
The mousy wife of a missing writer asks him to find her husband, who has reportedly written a scandalous roman a clef, which has set literary London alight with gossip.
This is all very metaphysical: a well-known writer working under a pseudonym writing a novel about a little-known writer who insults fellow writers, agents, publishers, friends and family – and who may have had a partner in crime. Can you really spot who has written something based on style alone? A sly reference to the author’s own attempts to fly under the radar.
It’s London, it’s the coldest winter on record, and Strike is hobbling about on his dodgy knee trying to avoid too many taxis and takeaways.
In other hands you might expect a private detective to profess and prefer self-sufficiency, but here calls upon the help of several others, and is none the worse for it. This is a fun, light read, ideal for a holiday, and I’m hungry for more.