I’ve always liked Terry Venables. I liked him as a player at Chelsea, Tottenham and QPR; as a manager at Crystal Palace, QPR, Tottenham and Barcelona; and as manager of England, particularly during the joyous summer of Euro ’96. I’m sure I would have liked Gordon Williams, too, but I just don’t know him in the same way.
Having forged a successful career in football, the partnership of Venables and Williams to write three crime novels featuring private detective James Hazell seems an unlikely partnership. They wrote under the pseudonym P. B. Yuill, claiming they both had uncles with that name. Would you Adam and Eve it? What are the chances? Surely it must be the same man? Which would make Venables and Williams cousins. Or brothers!
There is a bit of history when it comes to footballers writing crime novels, although I would be prepared to bet that Terry Venables had a bit more input into his trilogy of Hazell stories than ever Steve Bruce did with his Steve Barnes capers.
I like the Hazell books––Hazell Plays Solomon; Hazell and the Three-Card Trick; Hazell and the Menacing Joker, all originally published by Macmillan. They may be very much a product of the 70s, and a bit un-pc in terms of today’s language and opinions, but they are refreshingly mischievous. The plots are good; the backdrop authentic; and James Hazell is a likeable rogue, skating on thin ice on either side of the law. I enjoyed the sly references to the real identity of the authors in the writing, too: “The fine old legal firm of Venables, Venables, Williams and Gregory, solicitors, occupied the whole of the sixth floor…” (p. 19, Hazell Plays Solomon, Penguin, 1977); “My cousin Tel came down to the car with me. I stayed the night at his place in Hoxton…” (p. 116, Hazell Plays Solomon, Penguin, 1977). I also liked the smattering of rhyming slang, which peppers the text, often elaborated for the benefit of the uninitiated: “How does a cockle now and a long ‘un when I get paid off grab you? Cockle means ten pounds––cock and hen, ten. A long ‘un is a hundred quid.” (p. 128, Hazell and the Menacing Jester, Penguin, 1977).
The books were sufficiently successful to be adapted into a Thames TV series called simply Hazell, and starring Nicholas Ball in the lead role. Each episode followed a familiar pattern of a down-on-his luck Hazell taking a case, which turned out to be more twisty than first assumed; Hazell getting beaten up; Hazell getting his leg over; Hazell beating someone else up; and Hazell, ultimately, winning through, whilst still remaining down-on-his-luck. The fact is, the shows were on the custard too late in the evening for me to watch them when I was a kid so I’ve never actually seen an episode, but that handicap does not prevent me from providing an accurate précis. The same description could fit every TV crime programme from the 1970s.
However, the Hazell of the novels had a few quirks, which lifted him above the formulaic; his dodgy ankle from his time as a copper; his penchant for women’s knees; his self-agonising about whether life would ever get better than this.
Like the Triumph Stag that he drives, James Hazell epitomises the Seventies for me, in the same way as do muddy football pitches, Brian Moore commentaries, and footballers with curly perm hairdos. And I won’t have a bad word said about any of them.
© Donnie Blake
Donnie Blake is older than he looks