Among crime writers – among writers in general, come to that – Bill James is something pretty special. Out of a novel about a grass (or, in American parlance, a stool pigeon) trying to resettle into a new life, he has given us a meditation on guilt, wish-fulfillment and the instability of identity. James’ desperate central character must forget his past to survive; but he cannot.
Reviewed by Paul Kane
Wolves of Memory
By Bill James
Constable and Robinson
Hardcover 224 pages (November 17, 2005)
When one Ian Maitland Ballion contacts the police to avert an armed robbery that his gang has got planned – there’s a loose cannon among their number and Ian wants to avoid the likelihood of trigger-happy violence – his life changes forever. The police cynically allow the “cash-in-transit” raid to go ahead so they can nab the gang red-handed. Ian is forced to rat out all of his mates and then, together with his family, he must try to forge a new life with a new identity.
Ian (new name now Robert Maurice Templedon) is distinctly uneasy about having been a squealer, or rather – in the police management speak that Bill James is so adept at satirising – a Covert Human Intelligence Source (CHIS). He feels shame and self-loathing; he knows that he deserves to be hated and punished. Yet Ian also has fantasies sometimes about returning to his former life. Perhaps his reasons for acting as he did will be understood and he will be welcomed back into the fold? Profoundly unstable, he is prone to do something reckless.
Among crime writers – among writers in general, come to that – Bill James is something pretty special. Out of a novel about a grass (or, in American parlance, a stool pigeon) trying to resettle into a new life, he has given us a meditation on guilt, wish-fulfillment and the instability of identity. James’ desperate central character must forget his past to survive; but he cannot. The “wolves of memory” attack and tear him apart, destroying the safe life that the police have worked so diligently to build for him. As Ross MacDonald, another great crime writer, has put it: “You can’t run away from the landscape of your dreams.”
There are plenty of pleasures, both literary and genre, to be found here. The story is told from various points of view, by different characters, and it builds to a fine climax. There is a conversational tone and rhythm to the narrative, too. Bill James is the master of a certain kind of English idiom that is both bolshy and bloody-minded; in this regard, an American counterpart might be the late George V. Higgins. And James’ language soars highest when it comes through Desmond Iles, one of the finest series characters in current crime fiction.
Iles is a terrific creation, and is in terrific form here. He is erratic, in-your-face, acerbic and prey to myriad dysfunctional impulses. Those are his good days. On his bad days, he is savage, violent and bloody-minded. (By the way, he’s a police officer.)
Bill James has been called (by Val McDermid, no less) “one of the kings of the dark hill” and Wolves of Memory shows that there is no danger of him losing his crown anytime soon. This is a majestic novel, made by a writer working at the peak of his powers.
About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org