Cover image for Top banana
Top banana
James, Bill, 1929-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Foul Play Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
284 pages ; 22 cm
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It was all in the papers. Mandy Walsh had been gunned down, caught in the crossfire between two rival drug gangs. Mandy was a drug runner: she was also just thirteen years old. For shattered idealist Chief Constable Mark Lane, the only solution to this evil is to infiltrate the drug gangs. His sardonic assistant chief, Desmond Iles, has another solution: let the gangland police itself in return for a few favors. And Mansel Shale, drug kingpin, wants nothing more than a working arrangement with the police -- anything that will make him top banana in his dark, perilous world. Then Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur looks harder into Mandy's death and the game turns darker. It seems there was a third shooter: one targeting Mandy.

Author Notes

Bill James lives in Wales.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Where to begin praising this dark and delightful novel? A stellar police procedural, to be sure, but James' latest Harpur and Iles mystery, the thirteenth in a consistently outstanding series, goes way beyond that label. Like George V. Higgins, James uses superbly crafted dialogue to develop his characters. Through brilliant verbal exchanges between the three police principals--Harpur, Iles, and their boss, Chief Constable Lane--as well as lengthy monologues from one of the villains, we get to know the cast more by what they say than by what they do. As for the characters themselves, in addition to the always delightful interplay between street-smart Harpur and intellectual Iles, this time James gives us drug kingpin Mansel Shale--an unforgettable, thoroughly captivating villain who steals the show from the series' heroes. When a 13-year-old girl who worked as a drug runner in the lowest ranks of Shale's operation is shot, Shale is outraged. Refining "honor among thieves" to a new art, he attends her funeral and hunts for her killer. His excruciatingly sincere attempt to form a relationship with the police to avoid future violence is both laughable and touching--readers may well find themselves rooting for the inimitable Shales and trying hard to forget what he does for a living. Any fan of the British crime novel will find Top Banana one of the best of the bunch. --Jenny McLarin

Publisher's Weekly Review

Here's good news for James's fans: Norton seems to be publishing the author's British backlist at an ever-increasing pace. Six months after the appearance of his Roses, Roses, a PW Best Book of 1998 (originally published in Britain in 1993), comes a marvelously mordant mystery (released in Britain in 1996) also featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur, who's now trying to prevent the "venomous dandy" Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, his superior, from destroying Chief Constable Mark Lane. The fallout begins when a 13-year-old girl is inadvertently killed while acting as a drug courier. Iles wants to curtail drug-related crime by making a treaty with the top dealers, especially Mansel Shale (whom James invests with brilliant dialogue that suggests a mating of Damon Runyon and Harold Pinter: "I would not like to be talking to any child of mine if I thought he had bullets in him"). Lane won't consider such an unholy alliance, and orders a dangerous mission to infiltrate Shale's operation. Harpur juggles his loyalties to his superiors while also trying to be a caring father to his two teenage daughters, still recovering from the murder of their mother. Matters grow even more complicated when Harpur discovers that Mandy's death may not have been so accidental. This novel's exceptionally strong prose seals James's reputation as one of the finest stylists in the genre‘and his wholly involving characters and plotting stamp the seal tight. (Feb.) FYI: Bill James is a pseudonym for James Tucker, who also writes as David Craig. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Series detective Colin Harpur and assistant chief constable Desmond Iles (Roses, Roses, Morrow, 1998) have conflicting ways of dealing with the murder of a bystander during a drug shoot-out. As it turns out, someone intended to kill the teenaged victim. Another solid British procedural from a prolific pen. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One She could not read or write, but she could count. Her schooling ended a year ago, when she was twelve. She ended it. Even while she was still on the register she hardly ever went. Perhaps there were a few written words she would understand: very simple combinations that she had picked up in primary school, when her attendance was better; plus words she recognized through familiarity: graffiti words, placard words, pop music programme titles on television. But especially graffiti words, such as kid gang names like Zit and Saka; and produce names, like ganja, nut nuts, poppers, wash and Billy, and then the usual, of course: love, fuck, HIVSPIT, lootable, fRenZeeEee. She could write her name in block capitals. It was NOON. She had taken this from a group she loved, but which had come apart now. She liked to keep the memory of them in her name.     Before NOON she was Mandy, which she had hated. That was a baby name given her when she was a baby. The school had called her Mandy, of course, and the newspaper reports of her death did, too, because that was the way it came from the police. If she had been able to see these reports, and able to read them, this would have truly pissed her off. One of the papers did say she liked to be called NOON, but it was right down the bottom of the story, as though unimportant. And if she had been able to see the report she would definitely not have been able to work her way that far through the words. It was the sound of the name NOON that she liked, and she had a pretty good idea of what it meant, too. Getting the crossbar of the N the right way, and making the Os join up gave her trouble, but she had stuck at it.     Even thirteen-year-olds up on their reading would have had trouble with some of the words in the news reports. Fusillade. Courier. Intimidation. Convictions. Culmination. Tragic symbol . The pictures, though, gave no difficulty. They showed the stretch of pavement outside a fruit and veg shop where she was found. Her body was not shown. Possibly the photographers arrived too late. Conceivably there had even been some self-editing by the Press in the cause of tenderness. A dozen Vs of glass hung from the top frame of the shattered fruit and veg shop window. Fusillade. There would be thin spikes in the broccoli: not good at all. One of the bigger papers did a series of street maps on page two, with white arrows: Child killed here; Man One (white) shot here and pulled into exiting blue Carlton by Man Two (black) armed with automatic rifle, possibly a Kalashnikov; Man Three (black) drove; Man Four (black) possibly wounded in arm here and escapes on foot down Cave Street; Man Five (white and wearing beret) unhit and escapes into Simon Street here . The maps had the artist's name in the bottom right-hand corner, like battle paintings. The houses and apartment blocks in these sketches looked good. They had style, even grace. That's how they must have been forty-odd years ago when they were built: a post-war impulse to house the people decently. The slow slide into seediness did not show. The map placed the park at a junction of Cave Street and three others. It was represented by a few bushy-topped tree drawings and the wooden bridge over a stream. You could imagine it as restful, and in the 1950s it probably was.     Even ten years ago that park, Fulmar Gardens, was not too bad: usable. On some fine summer afternoons then, Mandy was taken there to play by her mother, and other mothers and children went, too, and even fathers. Later, when Mandy was NOON and busy, she had in her head woolly but nice recollections of those afternoons, and her feelings about the park might grow confused for a second. Of course, she knew it was not on to go into the park now, morning, afternoon or night, and especially when carrying what she might be carrying. This would be either one of the products or money she had just collected for the products. But the tidy, grown-up good sense of such fears could be shaken for a second occasionally by some of those far-off recollections and she would gaze at the trees and big clumps of bushes and think how nice they looked, never mind the dumped stuff all round, the old fridges and bits of car. She could just about recall great games of chase, and running yelling with no clothes on through the stream near the little bridge. She remembered how a breeze might shift the high leaves and let the sun flicker through on to her face for a second, a lovely hot glare, and then it would be shady again. She remembered a thick wallflower smell.     The park would have been a useful short-cut for her now when she was on one of her courier runs, but she would never let those pleasant old memories make her think Fulmar Gardens might still be all right. In the summer especially, when everything looked so beautiful, people hung about in there among the bushes, getting highs on, or planning something for the night or dividing up looted stuff. Someone told NOON it was not safe to run through the park in case you fell over mugged handbags and it was not safe to walk through there in case you were caught by lurkers. Once, NOON asked her mother did the park change all at once one day. But her mother only said, `What?' She never seemed to want to talk very much about anything, and there was nobody else to ask. Most people did not like to speak about the park. They were ashamed of it and afraid of it. NOON heard a woman in the mini-mart say Fulmar Gardens was a mockery. This was one of those words NOON must have missed. The mini-mart kept its steel shutters closed in the day as well as at night, and the door was shut, too, except when customers came in or went out. They had a couple of dim light bulbs on in there all the time and there were shadows, so that NOON could not see the woman's face very well. But NOON could tell from her voice that mockery meant don't go in the park. The thing about Fulmar Gardens was it could be bad in there at any time, but the place near the fruit and veg where NOON was hit was not usually bad at all. It was very bad that day, that was all.     Although the reports had some awkward words, the headlines were almost as uncomplicated as the pictures, and NOON might have been able to manage them, given a bit of help. GIRL, 13, SHOT DEAD IN DRUGS GANG WAR DEAD MANDY, 13, WAS DRUGS PUSHER CROSSFIRE DEATH CHILD SOLD DRUGS VICTIM: CHILD 0F OUR TIME     `Child of our time' meant, obviously, that she was no child at all, a little girl made adult too soon by deprivation and evil. It also meant there were others like her. But, yes, she was a child. Although she ran an efficient, pretty business, she liked sweets and dolls -- slept with three dolls, and could not sleep without them -- and had no interest in the produce she ferried. Possibly she even realized, or half-realized, that there was something wrong with her life. That is, not just wrong in a way which might have brought the police after her; but not right to have moved young into trade and skipped so much of growing up. She wondered whether what had happened to the park had happened to her: a dark, rushed change that would never change back. She would have asked her mother about this, but knew she would not get much of an answer. There was one doll she talked to most, a doll she took to calling Mandy when she gave up the name herself. In bed some nights NOON told Mandy of this idea of the sudden alteration to the park and herself. She would also talk to the other dolls sometimes, but for this special matter only Mandy would seem to do, because Mandy had the name NOON had when she was young.     Little Mandy Walsh, aged only 13, was gunned down yesterday in broad daylight yards from her home, blasted to death in the crossfire of warring drug gangs.     Her small body was hit by possibly three bullets in a fusillade from a Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifle. She died on the pavement near a shop she often visited to buy sweets. Drugs barons on the estate where Mandy lived employed her to carry supplies to street corner pushers and collect cash. Police say she had £2500 worth of crack cocaine `rocks' in a carrier bag when she was hit.     FULL STORY PAGES 2, 3, 4 and 5.     The Press covered the details of the shooting very thoroughly, and most of them also looked at the tragic symbolism of NOON'S death. One paper said that in a good week she could make £250. Originally, she had been paid a wage for running supplies. Then she had asked for a percentage. This part of the article was where the sentence, She could not read but she could count , probably first appeared. The child knew how valuable she was to the major drug dealers. Police would not suspect a pretty, smiling girl of 13 of pushing .     One of the writers had been to Mandy's schools and discovered her attendance record. From May 7 1992, her 10th birthday, Mandy had only four full days of schooling registered . It was not clear how this figure had been arrived at. The article said that neither the schools nor the education authority would allow sight of the registers. Perhaps some clerk or some teacher had whispered the facts, wanting to highlight the difficulties of schooling in areas like the Ernest Bevin estate. The authority claimed it had done all possible to enforce attendance, but the feeling from the article was that she had been written off by teachers and officials who had too much else on their plates, and who were, in any case, afraid to get heavy on the Ernest Bevin.     Mandy's father left her mother, Rachel, 34, when the child was a year old and disappeared. Police have so far failed to trace him to inform him of the death of his daughter. Honey-blonde, attractive Rachel Walsh says the only money coming into the house was from income support and child allowance. She denies that Mandy had earnings from drugs running and says that if she did none of it was passed from Mandy to her.     Mandy lived in a neat, 6th floor, two-bedroom flat in the Osprey tower. On her carefully made bed lay her three favourite dolls, including one which she had recently given her own name, Mandy, which she had abandoned.     Psychologist Emily-Marie Harbison of the Child Welfare Institute, which has a clinic on the Ernest Bevin estate, says that this rejection of a given `official' name is typical in disaffected youngsters. `And the shifting of that name on to a doll or pet or other cherished possession is also typical,' she said. `The child wishes to quit childhood, or has been compelled to quit it by circumstances. At the same time, the child seems to recognize subconsciously that the premature loss of childhood is, indeed, a loss, and so will seek to embody that "younger" self elsewhere. A doll or other inanimate possession, rather than a pet, is the more common choice, became inanimate objects do not age.'     Comforted by neighbours, Rachel Walsh was too distressed to talk at length about her daughter's death, but said it had happened because the law no longer operated in that area, and the innocent were just as likely to be injured or killed as members of the battling gangs. `We are intimidated and terrorized,' she said. `The death of Mandy is the culmination of many acts of violence. There is constant crime, often involving guns, and no convictions.' She has had a police warning for possession and use of cannabis, but has never been prosecuted. She said that her boyfriend, Carl Sillers, loved Mandy as if she was his own child and would never even raise his voice to her. `It was not home life that made her become so uncontrollable,' Rachel Walsh said. Copyright © 1996 Bill James. All rights reserved.