Bernard “Tenderness” Mellick had a bit of a falling out with Ivor Wright, the leader of a rival protection gang, with the result that a blowtorch flame found its way around the more delicate parts of Wright’s body. As retaliation, Wright’s men kidnap Graham Mellick, Tenderness’s mentally handicapped eleven-year-old boy. With this scenario, the stage is set for the author to explore a number of surprising considerations and contradictions among the characters.
Mellick’s wife Jane is increasingly distraught about their missing child, but he can’t and won’t ask the police for help, as the force has spent years trying to put Mellick behind bars. Detective Harpur hears about the kidnapping through a well-placed informant, but sits on the information because his source (a white-collar criminal of whose activities Harpur looks the other way) asks him to. And Hubert Scott, a bent retired cop under pressure from an internal investigation, wants Harpur to lie and say he ordered him to take all those payouts that have been deposited into Scott’s bank accounts over the years, a necessary step to keep his undercover identity with Tenderness looking authentic. And if Harpur is not so inclined, well, it would be a shame for the investigator to hear about Harpur’s affair with another officer’s wife, not to mention his inaction on a known child abduction.
The genius of Bill James’ characterization and plotting lies in his ability to recognize and plumb the contradictions of people wanting to do right while still making a series of morally questionable choices. He lets only his most ignorant characters off the hook; the rest have very inconvenient flashes of doubt and self-loathing. Colin Harpur is surely the most introspective; the author regularly has him examining and doubting his own motives, from his ongoing affair with a widowed and remarried woman to his disproportionate desire to keep her new husband, a fellow officer, safe during a dangerous standoff where weapons could be fired. As written, Harpur’s supervisor, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, may carry the least uncertainty of self, although the man has the rhetorical habit of proclaiming that he is riddled with regret even as his behavior and personality show the opposite.
And then there is family man and blowtorch wielder Tenderness Mellick. He tortures his competition, he shows no remorse when a press for information at gunpoint leads to violence and death, and yet he manages to generate empathy. This is largely because he is willing to do everything for the sake of his wife and his son, and he realizes the necessity of his sacrifice – and the futility of the attempt – by degrees. Next to Colin Harpur, it is Tenderness Mellick who comes off as the most self-aware; they are two sides of the same coin, flawed from the minting.