To the list of the funniest scenes in modern English literature — which includes the port drinking in P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season; the hangover in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim; a novelist’s attempt to describe sex in Jonathan Coe’s The Winshaw Legacy — we must now add the near-monologue by British gang boss Leo Percival Young in Undercover, the latest novel in Bill James’s Harpur and Iles crime series.

“The south is Millennium Section,” Young says, explaining his territory’s code names, “to mark how time moves on constant and demanding…. For instance, it can’t be BC no longer but is very AD, because, of course, you couldn’t refer to a time as BC until you was into AD. BC people didn’t know they was BC, because there’s wasn’t no C.” Young appreciates, among other things, his wife’s awareness “…that money don’t drop from heaven like them bread rolls in the Bible.” He stresses “decorum,” even when ordering a punishment beating for a wayward drug dealer. “We gives him some pain and possible breakages…so he can manage, say, the splints and poultices by himself, or through dear ones — no hospitalization and all the snags that could bring for the firm.”
James’s ingenious humor is not light relief but dark enhancement. In his gangsters’ mock-corporate patois, violence becomes grotesquely respectable, a torture session nothing more than a “thump outing.” Young, a master of such lingo, is telling Tom Parry, new to “the firm,” how two underlings suspected of dealing on the side will be punished. Tom listens, obedient. “If they decided to kill, you had to go along with it,” he understands. “Pack law. Basic. Anyone who worked undercover knew this.” Detective Sergeant Tom Mallen, alias Parry, who has infiltrated Young’s gang, is fatally shot on the killing mission, probably by a corrupt cop. We learn this early on, when Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and Assistant Chief Commissioner Desmond Iles are dispatched to investigate Mallen’s murder on that other police force’s turf.
This being the twenty-ninth novel in James’s remarkable Harpur and Iles series, we know what to expect. Iles is brilliant, ruthless, maybe insane; Harpur is laconic, cunning, tenacious. But Undercover is a surprise. Compressed and elliptical, it shunts back and forth between chapters titled “Before” and “After,” tantalizingly building up to and alternately looking back on Mallen’s death. The clever, subtle plot is revealed incrementally, in flashbacks and interview transcripts, in Mallen’s thoughts and in Harpur’s and Iles’s speculations. On alien ground and confronting a fresh set of villains, these two characters seems oddly — refreshingly — peripheral, concerned not with each other or with a familiar cast of characters but with Mallen. “[A]re you telling us, without telling us, that our lad was set up?” Harpur asks the Home Office bureaucrat overseeing the cleanup. The answer may be obvious, but the explanation is both elegant and shocking, one of the neatest Bill James switchbacks in one of his finest novels.
As for the inimitable Leo Percival Young, we’ll know him when we see him again. “It was an unscarred face which could have been genial,” James allows. “But his features lacked sufficient room and looked cluttered, crammed into a paltry space and competing with one another for position, like too many survivors in a lifeboat. Possibly Leo’s cheeks were economized on in the womb….”