The Iles-Harpur mysteries of Bill James are a distinct departure from the usual police procedurals, combining a mystery du jour with the caustic repartee of the two rural English detectives, Assistant Constable Desmond Iles and Deputy Constable Colin Harpur.
The widower-father of two adolescent daughters, Harpur is dedicated to his work in the department. On the other hand, Desmond Iles is a bird of quite another feather, groomed to the nines for every occasion, waxing lyrical about his responsibility in settling a family into a new identity one moment and raving about his colleagues’ betrayal the next: “The Assistant Chief had a talent for blame, mostly loading it on others, of course, but also on to himself now and then.”
Imagining himself the architect of a program to place families of questionable background into new identities, much like our witness protection programs, Iles is a self-styled Dr. Frankenstein: “the good, young, idealistic man of science who yearned to produce new life by his own methods.”
The “new” Mr. Robert Templedon, formerly a successful criminal enmeshed with a local crime family, has found himself in an untenable position on the eve of a carefully planned heist: due to a change in personnel, the job is guaranteed to fail. Templedon informs the local police of the plan, and they make certain promises, which, of course, they break. Consequently, Templedon is an informer, known as a “grasser,” and his family must change identities and go underground for their own safety.
Unfortunately for Robert and those who are now in charge of his safety, this thief is still drawn to the rush of the criminal life, plagued by the “wolves of memory,” although a psychologist has been assigned to “hunt down and slaughter those wolves in Templedon, Jane and the children, or they would pack-run and fang-destroy the present fine future.”
One foot in the past and the other pointed in a new direction, Templedon not only worries about which path to take, but is seemingly trapped in the midst of an ongoing police battle, Iles’ paranoid drama with his coworkers. The master criminal soon realizes that criminals have no monopoly on chaos.
Iles and Harpur enact their private contretemps in a wicked mix of pithy dialog and smooth-talking criminals, their relationship fraught with barbed insults, salty asides and unctuous compliments, barely managing to avoid the destruction of all the finely laid plans.
The supporting characters, Templedon’s concerned wife and confused children, Harpur’s precocious daughters and an assortment of wily crooks contribute the complications that accompany Iles’ master plan of creating the perfect “new” family in a rollercoaster of improbable events and near-misses. Bizarre and menacing, Harpur and Iles deliver another tour de force of satire and antic police procedure.