By Yvonne Klein of Reviewing the Evidence
When I reviewed this (under its North American title, Death Comes For The Fat Man), a perennial tiff had surfaced in the papers regarding the relative merits of literary vs. genre fiction. It was a discussion that was to come to a bit of a boil a year or so later, at Harrogate, when John Banville announced that he could manage only 200 words a day when writing as himself, but as Benjamin Black, he could crank out 2,000. Appearing on the same panel, Reginald Hill gained a round of applause when he said, “When I get up in the morning, I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker prize winning novel, or another bestselling crime book. And we always come down on the side of the crime book.” Hill may have always turned to crime, but he was far from abandoning the literary, especially in the later novels and picking up his references, which his novels wore lightly, was one the great pleasures his work provided.
On a warm Bank Holiday afternoon, Hector, a police constable not noted for his acute observation or articulate expression, thinks he hears something like a gunshot. He ambles into a dimly-lit shop where he is assured that all is well. But he does report the incident, more or less, and thus sets into train a series of events that will shortly see Andy Dalziel in hospital, uncertainly poised between life and death. Peter Pascoe, protected by Andy’s bulk from the full blast of the explosion, embarks on a single-minded and unorthodox investigation of the crime.
Pascoe is seized by the irrational conviction that he must solve this crime if Dalziel is to recover. He is seized by something else as well – a portion of Dalziel’s spirit. Peter finds himself speaking broader Yorkshire than usual, cutting corners that he would normally have trodden scrupulously around, and viewing members of the Combined Anti-terrorism Unit (CAT), to which he has been seconded as a way of keeping him under control, with a heartfelt suspicion bordering on paranoia.
The trail he must follow is a convoluted one indeed. Who is involved in the romantically named Knights Templar that claims credit for assassinating prominent Muslims it deems guilty of terrorist sympathies? Could one of them also work for CAT? Are the Muslims in question really as innocent as they appear? How is it possible to tell?
Whether or how these questions are resolved readers must find out for themselves, but one that is left open is the most serious of all. It is one that we are all now asked to answer: in a world marked by extremisms of all stripes, are conventional policing and the ordinary courts system adequate to the task of maintaining public order, let alone dispensing justice? Peter comes to his own conclusions, but neither easily nor with a whole heart.
All this sounds very heavy, and there are weighty issues at the centre of this novel. The dedication, after all, reads: ‘For the peace makers – whichever god’s children they are . . .’ But it is, nevertheless, frequently a very funny book and always a witty and literate one. Literate, and literary too, but not in the sense of frequent ellipses and italicized streams of consciousness that weigh down otherwise quite pleasant little tales of murder in the hope of earning for their authors a pass into the world of serious fiction.
Hill is of a generation that treasures the English literary heritage and is unashamed to show it. Driving past a hamlet called Burnt Yates, Pascoe, who did A-level English, produces a quotation from TS Eliot. It is an apt quotation, and unidentified. If the reader recognizes ‘Burnt Norton’, it is an added pleasure; if not, the verse alone is quite enough, for it exists as part of a verbal range that stretches from the bawdy, the rude, the obscene to the Four Quartets.
Hill has not lost his ability to produce striking minor characters. Here the most memorable are female: Tottie, who may or may not have danced the tango with Andy Dalziel in years gone by; the Scotswoman, Chief Superintendent Glenister, cast very much in Andy’s mould. All of which bodes well for the future of the series, but there is an undeniable sense of sadness about this book as well, a sense of slippage and loss.
At one point on a pleasant Saturday, Pascoe experiences a modest swell of sentimental patriotism. ‘This is England, he found himself thinking. This is what Englishness means. Sitting at a village fete on a warm day of summer in pleasant company, eating Victoria sponge beneath a blue sky spotted with little white clouds, this is worth fighting for . . .’
Shades of Rupert Brooke, and Hill and Pascoe both know it and know that the kinds of violence and death that may flow from this sort of idealization are terrible indeed. They know as well that a good cop may find himself with no truly good choices when ignorant armies clash by night.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2007 as Death Comes For The Fat Man, at Reviewing The Evidence. After retiring from an academic career teaching modern British literature in Montreal, Yvonne Klein has spent the last four years or so editing Reviewingtheevidence.com, a long-established on-line review site devoted primarily to crime fiction published in the US, the UK, and Canada.