||Here's the question: which popular
British crime writer has served time as a private investigator? Is it Mark
Timlin, creator of the South London Mike Hammer, Sharman? Or John Baker,
with his York based private eye Sam Turner? Neither of those? Then how about
a maternal looking Scottish lady from the refined streets of Edinburgh.
Unlikely as it seems and as far removed as she may be from her colleagues'
ideas of how a private eye appears, Joyce Holms joins such illustrious company
as Dashiell Hammett, Joe Gores and John Straley, Americans all, in experiencing
both the reality and the fiction of investigation. Not that this was a deliberate
career choice. Joyce began her investigative career by doing secretarial
work for an Edinburgh detective agency run by two former CID officers, but
soon found herself co-opted into surveillance work and other duties precisely
because she did not fit the archetypal private eye image. It was to be a
useful grounding for a crime writing career.
Her stint as a private eye may have opened her eyes to the seamier side
of life in Edinburgh's meaner streets, but fortunately for the reader's
entertainment, Joyce's books are far from relentlessly grim. In fact, in
a city that has more crime writers per head of population than anywhere
else in the UK, Joyce seems to have cornered her own niche with a special
blend of crime and humour. This may be a more genteel Edinburgh portrayed
in the books of Ian Rankin or Chris Brookmyre, with characters more likely
to be found in the golf club bar or sipping tea in Jenners - the Scottish
Harrods - rather than downing heavies at the Barony or Oxford Bar, but that
does not mean that Joyce is prepared to shy away from the grim realities.
Her first book, Payment Deferred 1996, opens with a body impaled on railings,
a beginning that bears comparison with Rankin's breakthrough novel of
roughly the same vintage, Black and Blue. The plot hinges on a case of
child abuse, an issue some our cosier writers would rather avoid.
That said, the reader does not turn to the crime novels of Joyce Holms
for the gore but to saviour the delicious interplay between her leading
characters; the prematurely middle- aged lawyer Tam Buchanan and his law
student legal assistant 'Fizz' Fitzgerald. Buchanan's legal practice offers
the excuse for involvement with crime, but inevitably it is the more impestuous
Fizz who kick starts the investigation and gets them into trouble. Often
potentially fatal trouble.
Buchanan is the establishment figure, having neatly stepped into his father's
law practice. His cousin is a doctor, his girlfriends are glamorous professional
women, his instinct is for the cautious approach to a situation.
The appropriately named Fizz, in contrast, is a much wilder character.
Deceptively young looking, she consistently fools people into believing
she is a teenager - it's the ringlets woman! In fact, she is a worldly
26-year old when the series begins. Between a failed attempt at art school
and the beginning of her law degree, Fizz was an international gypsy,
travelling from country to country and continent to continent. Six books
on, she continues to hold some enticing secrets over just what she did
in those missing years. She and Buchanan fight , annoy and exasperate
each other - Buchanan likens Fizz's arrival in his life to the appearance
of an Ebola virus. Of course, beneath it all is the electric chemistry
of two people tremendously attracted to each other, but who would never
admit it. Somehow Fizz contrives to sabotage all Buchanan's romantic relationships,
both deliberately and innocently. Somehow Buchanan cannot help but notice
when Fizz receives attention from other men for her 'sensational legs'.
Frustrated sexual tension has a long pedigree among detective couples,
think Mulder and Scully in the X-Files or, more pertinently the love-hate
relationship between Bruce Willis' character David Addison and Cybil Sheperd's
Maddie Hayes in cult 1980s series Moonlighting before both series outstayed
Of course, Joyce is too canny a writer to bring her two protagonists together,
knowing that the anticipation is everything for her readers and that Fizz
and Buchanan's relationship would naturally combust within months. Infact
she has said that if Fizz and Buchanan do finally get things together,
that would be the end of the series.
Buchanan's first impression of Fizz in the early pages of Payment Deferred
is typically deceptive. To him, Fizz is a plump girl of about 17, a teenage
bimbo with a 'sweet, dimpled face and an expression of unassailable innocence.'
It soon emerges that Fizz is not 17, not very innocent and not particularly
plump as she bends the truth enough to herself a part time job with his
legal aid clinic. Setting the pattern of what is to come, she soon has
Buchanan involved in an unwanted investigation, taking up the case of
an old friend of Tam convicted of molesting his daughter. Still protesting
his innocence, he wants Buchanan to clear him and sets Fizz on the investigation
trail. Joyce balances humour, suspense and the darkness of the subject
matter. There is a light touch to her writing that cannot fail to entertain
and the reader can expect to put the book aside wanting more of Fizz and
So back they come in Foreign Body (1997), but this time with a change
of locale. Buchanan, recuperating from a spell in hospital, is persuaded
by Fizz to to come to her home village of Am Bealach in the Perthshire
Highlands. This raises another point about Holms. Her series may be based
in Edinburgh, but she is happy to move the action elsewhere, especially
when she can make use of her personal experience. Places like the Isle
of Arran, where she ran a hotel or the Perthshire village of Killin where
she also lived. Not that Killin is surely anything like Am Bealach.
'One thing you have to bear in mind about Am Bealach,' says Fizz about
her home village 'is that everyone of the locals is a bit nutty, one way
or another. It's called the Am Bealach Effect. Living in a place like
this with no stimulation to speak of, you lose about one IQ point per
Joyce broadens out her family of characters with the introduction of Fizz's
irascible Grampa, a tough, deaf hill farmer with the energy of a man half
his age, and Grampa's second wife, Fizz's Auntie Duff. Buchanan may enjoy
their hospitality, but even after one book he should realize that nothing
involving Fizz is going to be wholly restful. A missing octogenarian and
the concealed body of a murdered hiker lead the pair into another investigation,
Fizz using her natural charm to win over the local detective inspector
along the way. The seemingly idyllic village that harbours lethal secrets
is one of the oldest staples in crime fiction, but Joyce writes with a
good-natured energy that overcomes the treat of cliché.
It is back to Edinburgh for the third book, Bad Vibes (1999) where the
death of a German tourist in a city hotel sends Fizz and Buchanan searching
for a missing painting that should have been amongst his belongings, a
search that takes them to an artistic community in the Pentland hills
and Arran. The tourist has, because this is a crime novel, been murdered.
To the reader it is obvious, but not to Fizz and Buchanan who only become
aware they are tracking a murderer fairly late in the proceedings. Although
it all leads to a suspenseful climax, the stakes and therefore reader
interest are arguably not so high as in the previous episodes. Perhaps
not the best entry point to the Fizz /Buchanan saga for that reason, it
still has much to be enjoyed, not least the reaction of Fizz and especially
Buchanan - to the interest Fizz receives from Buchanan's partner.
Holms makes up for the relatively low key third installment with Thin
Ice (1999). Buchanan's GP cousin Mark, a recurring and useful character,
enlists the dynamic duo to find four - year old Robin Tarrant, apparently
kidnapped by his drug addict father. Noticeably than other books in the
series, the search leads them to a killer, one who is protected by justice
because of their hold over the child.
If the fourth book is Rankinesque in character, getting dark and dirty
in Edinburgh and Glasgow, then Mr Big (2000) appears to tackle Rankin
and Rebus on their own turf with Fizz and Buchanan investigating the killing
of Edinburgh's supposedly leading gangland figure, A long standing, and
inept, client of the Buchanan family is on trial for the murder of drug
dealer Chic Matheson. So far so hardboiled, but the novel takes a light-hearted
twist when the trail to Matheson's killer leads to a home for retired
show people. Good news for fans of Foreign Body is the reappearance of
Fizz's grandpa. Here, he is the one recovering from hospital treatment
and is co-opted by Fizz to become an undercover operator at the home keeping
an eye on his fellow residents and giving her and Buchanan an excuse to
The book starts with a splendid slice of Joyce's playfulness as a writer.
With talk of winter and summer residences, the reader is fooled into thinking
that Glendenning, a witness to murder, is a member of the upper classes
- only to find on the next page he is actually a tramp.
Along the way to the revelation of a very unlikely crime overlord, Buchanan
sees another promising relationship derailed by too close contact with
Fizz and comes as near as he dare admit to recognizing how attracted he
is to her. It ends with Fizz with Fizz, having already survived a vicious
beating, locked in the boot of the killer's car and being driven to parts
unknown. It is this experience that persuades Tam Buchanan detection should
be left to the boys in blue in future.
It's not a job for amateurs. We're lucky to be getting out of this one
alive. Now's the time to hanging up our bloodhounds, he states at the
'You're right, of course,' Fizz said sadly. 'There's no denying it, but
I'll miss it all the same.'
She drew a deep sigh and turned her face away so he wouldn't see her smile.'
True to Fizz's intentions if not Buchanan's, the pair returned last year
for a further joust against mayhem and murder on behalf of the forces
Buchanan is charged with executing the will of a gas explosion victim,
a task that puts him at odds with the victim's husband. The most powerful
advocate in Edinburgh, he has the power to break Buchanan, but Tam cannot
help but feel there is sort of a cover up under way.
With potential witnesses beginning to disappear from the village of Chirnside,
one of those little communities Joyce draws so well, the pair head to
the Highlands once more in pursuit of the truth. By the end of the novel
Buchanan has been shot at and Fizz sacked, but even this should not mean
the end of the partnership.
Re-instating her to his employ, Buchanan admits he likes having her around,
and it is given to Fizz to sign off the novel with the final words: 'Stick
with me baby, and you'll go places.'
Unfortunately the next place Fizz and Buchanan will go to will be a new
publisher. After six books seeing the series safely into it's stride,
Joyce and publishers Headline have parted company. The good news is that
this does not mean a permanent farewell for Fizz and Buchanan. Joyce is
in talks with another publisher, so there is still a chance of seeing
Fizz and Buchanan finally give in and get down to some serious snogging.
But even without Fizz and Buchanan, a partnership that still looks to
have a few more outings left, Joyce is not set to hang up her bloodhounds
In a year 2000 interview, she revealed she had an idea for another series,
one that would be an 'absolute scream.'
However, it was not one she was willing to write while she remained heavily
involved with Fizz and Buchanan. She has also recently changed agents,
and is being encouraged to write that breakthrough book. The idea is there
and publishers have taken an interest.
One thing is certain we have not closed the final chapter on Joyce Holms'