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    Review of THE GIRL WITH THE LONG BACK by Bill James


    W. W. Norton & Company, March 2004 (U.S.)

    Brilliant but insane Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles has created a sort of peace in his city by allowing local druglords to operate without much opposition, but ruthlessly squashing outside influence. But the rumors are that the Chief, Mark Lane, is due to be promoted and that a new chief (definitely not Iles) will be appointed. With Iles losing influence, the three major drug lords of the unnamed English city are trying to decide which direction to take and looking at one another with guns drawn. Detective Chief Superintendent Col Harpur tries planting an undercover cop in the smallest of the operations--and nearly loses her when her cover is blown. But the rescue results in two dead criminals--and just might be the spark that sets off a drug war. Especially when Iles's primary informant is killed in what looks like a revenge murder.

    Harpur, Iles, and the surviving drug lords face off in a multi-sided game. Every man, even within the police department, is pursuing different objectives--yet no one really wants an end to the peace on the streets that Iles's rules have created.

    Author Bill James (see more reviews of novels by James) continues his fascinating exploration of law and disorder in the world of drugs. Harpur, co-protagonist along with druglord Ralph Ember, is always claiming that there are no gray areas, that good police work will be done and that the police are investigating all of the murders, but everyone knows that Harpur his hiding secrets, and that Iles holds even more secrets and far more gray areas within himself. Panicking Ralph Ember continues as a sympathetic character in his criminal and blustering way.

    In the world of Harpur and Iles, no one ever answers questions, no one comes out and says what they are thinking, and no one directly admits the truth that they all recognize but cannot speak out loud. The line between policeman and criminal is thin indeed, and Harpur's attempts to hold onto his sanity by imagining the potential that Chief Mark Lane might someday exercise his nominal authority over Iles are both sympathetic and reprehensible.

    Harpur & Iles Mysteries are strong and thoughtful accounts of the real world--where the police might just be more dangerous than the criminals they hunt and sometimes cooperate with, where informants are protected at all costs, and where the gray area is large indeed.

    Four Stars

    Reviewed 5/06/04

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