Born in London in 1938, John Harvey was initially the author of many pulp fiction novels, before hitting the big time (!) with the Charlie Resnick crime series in the 1990s. He has written for television and radio - dramatizations of Paul Scott, A.S. Byatt and Graham Greene on BBC Radio 4 - and for many years ran Slow Dancer Press, which specialized in publishing poets such as Lee Harwood, Libby Houston, Lucille Clifton and many more. The first of three novels by him featuring retired police detective Frank Elder, Flesh and Blood, won the Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger. Here John writes about Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, William McIlvanney, and a few others whose books influenced him.
John Harvey on books that have influenced him
When I was a lad - a callow youth - my first brush with crime fiction was almost certainly up against the copies of Hank Jansen paperbacks that were passed around the school playground and which, inevitably, fell open at the dirty bits. Who Jansen was I didn't care, and probably still don't, not a great deal, though it would come as no great surprise to learn that whoever was labouring to produce these American pulp-style pot boilers was doing so on a battered upright on a kitchen table somewhere south of Pinner - and that although the authorial name was singular, the actual writers were many or several. After all, wasn't I to follow a similar ploy when my pals and I were writing westerns in the 70s?
Jansen, however, was followed by Peter Cheyney, an Englishman certainly, though he did the best he could to disguise this in the adventures of his private eye, Lemmy Caution. Cheyney led me (after side-trips to The Saint and, bizarrely, Baroness Orczy) to Mickey Spillane, and Caution to the more authentic Mike Hammer. Only later, at around the age of 17 or 18, did one of my more literary-minded friends point me towards Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and by then, of course, I was hooked.
Not yet writing, nor thinking of doing so, at least not consciously.
Not even when I first read the books which were to have a significant influence on the series of Nottingham-based Resnick novels I began writing in 1988-9.
Most important amongst these were the Swedish pair, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, who in the ten years between 1965 and 1975 wrote ten police procedural novels featuring Inspector Martin Beck, a sequence which only ended with Wahloo's death (and which is currently being reissued, thankfully, by HarperCollins.)
Aside from putting down a marker for the significance of Scandinavian crime fiction, these books - written by two committed socialists - provided a template for police-based investigations in which the crimes were frequently enmeshed with the economic and social pressures of the urban milieu in which they took place. In this aspect, you can see the genesis of much contemporary crime fiction - my own Resnick books hopefully included. And in Martin Beck you can see the model of many similar protagonists - Charlie Resnick, certainly, Rankin's Rebus possibly, and without much doubt Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander.
Closer to home, and as strongly influential, was William McIlvanney's 1977 novel, Laidlaw. McIlvanney's Jack Laidlaw is a rougher diamond than Martin Beck, as suits, perhaps, the city in which he works; Laidlaw himself is as much a part of Glasgow as Rebus is of Edinburgh or Resnick of Nottingham, and the novels - there are three in all - are as much books about a particular place as they are about a man and his contacts with crime. All other connotations aside, McIlvanney is a marvellous writer - as his recent and quite different novel, Weekend, shows - and Laidlaw and its sequels are replete with rich humour, telling observation and a prose (if you'll excuse the cliché) that is hewn from granite. Someone should get these back into print as soon as possible.