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Harpur, Iles, and the shadow of Anthony Powell

(The Girl With the Long Back; By Bill James;Norton, 239 pp., $23.95)

In Bill James's mordant, witty Harpur and Iles novels, bodies abound: dead enforcers, drug dealers, grasses (British slang for stool pigeons), undercover detectives, even (in ''Roses, Roses") Harpur's wife, Megan.

''The Girl With the Long Back," 20th in the series, is no exception. It opens with Harpur's primary grass, Jack Lamb, shooting down two of drug executive Ferdy Dubal's low-life assistants, Percy Kellow and Mildly Sedated Henschall, to protect an undercover officer with a somewhat blown cover. It ends with two different bad folks being gunned down by other bad folks. And in the middle, two more unsavories are on two separate occasions run over by unsavory vehicles.

These murders aren't really so bad. They tend to happen offstage, around the corner or just over the hill. The victims are all some sort of pond scum; their deaths are seen as steps in the right direction. And regularly the dead crooks are killed by live ones, albeit with the approval and occasional encouragement of the police officers closest to the action, especially ACC Desmond Iles and DCS Colin Harpur.

Iles, the assistant chief constable of James's fictional city's force, is ruthless, egotistical, brilliant, and marginally insane. Under (or perhaps because of) Chief Mark Lane's ineffectual leadership, he has been able to orchestrate a peace of sorts among the various drug barons.

The chief is being promoted to somewhere else, out of town, however, and his replacement may destroy the fragile ecology Iles has promoted for so many volumes. The ACC is further distracted by Fay-Alice Rideout, the 18-year-old daughter of his lately run-over grass, who is off to Oxford on a police scholarship for children of grasses. Fay-Alice is the girl with the long back, and Iles is quite taken with her: ''The ACC loved to get among teenage schoolgirls if they looked clean and were wearing light summery clothes."

Holding things together in this book -- as in all the others -- is Detective Chief Superintendent Harpur, the real hero of the series. The only person who can keep pace with Iles, he must constantly oil the waters his superior has roiled. He disapproves of ''pacts with villains. Lawlessness was then normality." Without Iles's knowledge he places Louise Machin, a young detective, undercover inside Dubal's drug-pushing organization, and does his best to keep her alive thereafter. With her help and that of favorite grass Lamb, he somehow manages to find out nearly everything, almost in the nick of time.

A few of his readers may be yet unaware that James is really a Welshman named James Tucker, the author of ''The Novels of Anthony Powell," a perceptive early study of Powell's work, including the massive 12-volume novel ''Dance to the Music of Time," an extraordinary comic portrait of the artistic and literary world of 20th-century England. Powell is the English grand master of the serial novel. It's an interesting game to see what Tucker/James has brought from ''Dance" to his long detective series.

There are of course many more differences than similarities. Whereas Powell is scrupulous about the passage of time -- not surprisingly, given his title -- for James time is utterly frozen. Harpur is still in his late 30s after 20 volumes, and his girlfriend, Denise, is forever young, bless her. Nevertheless, James wants us to be aware of the history of his series, even providing a couple of footnotes to refer to events dramatized in earlier books.

Obviously the men's styles lie miles apart. Powell writes things like ''There is a strong disposition in youth, from which some individuals never escape, to suppose that everyone else is having a much more enjoyable time than we are ourselves." Such Latinate vocabulary and construction are missing entirely from James, who is something of a master of the adverb. After the ACC delivers an impromptu, sardonic eulogy at Fay-Alice's father's funeral, in which he names four drug dealers present at the ceremony, Harpur muses: ''So this was the pulpited Iles, and the real Iles, most probably." That ''most probably" liberates the sentence, scudding clouds of ambiguity over Iles's passionate remarks.

Similarities exist, however. The most striking is the relationship between their two main characters. In the seventh novel of ''Dance," ''The Soldier's Art," the watchful, reserved Nick Jenkins, here a wartime Army lieutenant, finds himself working for his nemesis, Widmerpool, now a major. Widmerpool, ambitious beyond measure, continually manipulates the military system for his own ends. He is, Powell explains, one who lives by the will, and he makes Jenkins's life miserable.

Here is the model for Harpur and Iles. Most fictional detective pairs seem to fall into one of two categories. Either they are equals -- Tony Hillerman's Chee and Leaphorn, say -- or the sleuth superior in rank gets all the credit, like Holmes over Watson or Colin Dexter's Morse over Lewis. As ACC, Iles should be the main crimebuster, but he is so clearly beyond the pale that we regard him with a sort of appalled amusement: brilliant but bent, living entirely by the will. He doesn't really solve crimes; he simply manipulates the crooks. Harpur, just clever enough to understand what Iles is up to, is James's Nick Jenkins, struggling to keep the beat of his dance while the crime plays on.

John Gould, an English teacher at Phillips Academy, Andover, has taught the entire ''Music of Time" sequence.

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