Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hazell Plays Solomon - P. B. Yuill

"My name is James Hazell and I'm the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button."

That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.

This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.

The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.

From Georgina Gunning , the desperate ex-pat mother yearning for the return of her real daughter to Toni Abrey the self-confessed failure of a mother who sees in Hazell an opportunity for extramarital excitement. Hazell gets an education in what it means to be a mother and, to him, the inexplicable bond between parent and child. Furthermore he gets more lecturing from his mother who sees the baby switching as a nightmare come true and his boss at the fly by night detective e agency Dot Wilmington even calls him a moral imbecile for not seeing how traumatic the difficult resolution will be both mothers. Hazell can only make half-assed jokes about ripping the six year-old girl in half just as Solomon threatened to do when he was confronted with two mothers fighting over a child in the Old Testament parable.

The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.

I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.

James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
* * *

Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”


  1. Glad this one gave you a pleasant surprise, John. But even having you tell me that Hazell goes through a transformation by the end of the book isn't enough to tempt me. I don't think this one is quite my thing. Thanks for a terrific review, as always.

  2. Sound pretty great. Used to read hard boiled private eyes all the time.

  3. This does sound interesting, even though I usually go more for police detectives. I had recently read about this author but did not realize he had written so few mysteries. Per one of my mystery reference books, Yuill is a pseudonym for Gordon Williams and Terry Venables. I appreciate the list of titles.

    1. You're right that "P.B. Yuill" is a pseudonym for Williams and Venables. They even make a joke in the book by naming the law firm that employs Hazell Venables, Venables, Williams and Gregory. Sergio wrote in depth about this book on his blog back in Feb 2011. In fact, he sent me a copy of this book last year because I was having difficulty finding one over here. But in Sergio's review he didn't mention the prominence of the women characters (the book's greatest strength I think) or what I feel is the most crucial scene.

    2. Very interesting. I will check out Sergio's review too. Thanks.

    3. Hey John! Hope all is well with you.

      This sounds like an interesting read. I'm somewhat familiar with the Hazell TV series - but I had no idea that the show was based on a series of novels. Should have realized it, though, as most Brit crime dramas/detective shows seem to have literary sources. Thanks for the link up page to Sergio's post on the novel as well; will check that out too.

  4. Great review John (apologies if this comes across twice but the blogosphere has got a bit weird ever since I cleared my cache) - like Jeff I would recommend the TV show on which Williams and Venables also worked.

  5. Ooh, right up my alley. Hope these aren't too hard to find.