Review: You’d Better Believe It

The Murder Room’s Alex Crow reviews Bill James’ You’d Better Believe It.
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You’d Better Believe It, the first of Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series, sets the pieces in motion for the series. Think the Batman Begins of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Of the aforementioned detectives, the action focuses squarely on Harpur, with Iles part of the supporting cast. And Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur is a worthy protagonist for James’ first police procedural.

Cut from the same cloth as Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Harpur is a morally ambiguous detective, bending the law as required to suit the job at hand. His symbiotic relationship with informants, or ‘narks’, is a significant part of his modus operandi, and it is revealing to see the moral contradictions Harpur faces while dealing with them. This is to say nothing of his interest in women, where his ethics are even more dubious, especially when it comes to a colleague’s wife.

The plot centres around a bank job in a small, southern coastal town. The type of town where heavies from the ‘big smoke’ think they can come down, do their business and get away with it. Rex Holly is one such gangster; from the mean streets of Peckham (currently where I am writing this piece), he is about to cash in on a windfall. It is Harpur’s responsibility to prevent the raid and arrest Holly; however, when things invariably take a turn for the worse, the case takes on a more personal element.

It is in Harpur’s interior monologues that we discover what drives him, and how he balances the ethical quandaries inherent in his job, that James captures so well. Through Harpur, we see the perceived negative relationship between the public and the press, the police and the criminals, which adds both to his sense of persecution and justification for his actions.

The novel is filled with a strong supporting cast. Whether it be the cocksure deputy in line for rapid promotion, the smarmy nark who tries to assert his influence over Harpur, the lowlife small-time criminal or the grieving widow of a victim, James imbues each character with such depth that the audience can empathise with each individual’s motivations and subsequent actions. While the conclusion of the novel is slightly underwhelming, this is a strong opening hand by Bill James, and acts as an engrossing introduction to the Harpur and Iles series.

Bill James is regarded as one of the finest contemporary police procedural novelists, and has released 29 novels in the Harpur and Iles series. You’d Better Believe It, the first in the series, was nominated for the 1986 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award.