Book Review and Tribute: Dialogues of the Dead

By Anne Zouroudi

Link to PB on Amazon UK.

When I was younger than I am now, Reginald Hill was a privileged resident at our house.  Or at least, his novels – Deadheads and An April Shroud come immediately to mind – had homes in the family bookcase.

My mother and father, though keen readers, rarely bought books.  Most books in our house were on loan, chosen on the regular Saturday afternoon run to the library.  But at some point – an East Coast holiday seems the most likely time and place (Skegness or Scarborough, rather than Nantucket or New York) – my mother paid money for Reginald Hill.  I see that as her vote of confidence in his reliability.

I picked up my first Reginald Hill after watching the BBC’s brilliant serialisation of Dalziel and Pascoe – Warren Clarke as a bossy and bluff Dalziel, David Royle as the craggy- faced Wield, and I fell half in love with handsome Colin Buchanan in the role of Pascoe.  I was already addicted to Morse, and Dalziel and Pascoe was an interesting foil for the gentility of Oxford academia, with the rude and crude Dalziel an evil twin to the thoughtful and cultured Morse.

Dialogues of the Dead came later, but in my mind Clarke and Buchanan were forever Dalziel and Pascoe, and it was their voices I heard as I read.  It’s a long book, over 550 pages, and that immediately earns my admiration.  To write such a long novel takes great stamina; to maintain pace to engage the reader through such length takes an accomplished craftsman.

But I was engaged.  The story opens with the chilling death of an AA man, a not-quite accident closely followed by a second fatality, which might perhaps be accidental too.  But as the body-count rises (and the body count is high, a match for any episode of Midsomer Murders), a series of manuscripts hidden amongst the entries to a short-story competition reveals details of the deaths only a killer could know.  The manuscripts are full of literary allusions, linguistic puzzles and obscurities of the English language, so that Dalziel, Pascoe and Hat Bowler, Mid-Yorkshire police’s newest recruit, are forced to seek the help of staff at the local library.  One by one, the prime suspects are all bumped off, until the killer’s identity is revealed in the ending’s brilliant twist.

As I read Dialogues, I realised I had forgotten how funny Reginald Hill’s books can be. Dalziel’s crudeness of expression is highly imaginative, and pure Yorkshire – the same dirty-minded wit might be heard on any Sheffield building-site, or in any Rotherham pub.  Having grown up in South Yorkshire, for me the dialogue has an almost-nostalgic resonance, and Hill’s Yorkshire is a good place to spend time, a kinder place than the northern towns are now.

It may be heresy to say so in these pages, but the writing is occasionally flawed, the phrasing sometimes clumsy; more than once I back-tracked to make sense of the paragraph I was reading.  Yet on almost every page, what blazes out is Hill’s erudition, his acuteness and quick-wittedness shining through the unlikely personage of the boorish, smutty Dalziel.

So did I guess whodunit?  There were suspects a-plenty to choose from, and I fell for most of the red herrings along the cheerful way, but in the final pages, I was congratulating myself on having got it right.  Then came the twist…

Bravo, Reg.

Anne Zouroudi was born in England and has lived in the Greek islands.  She is the creator of Hermes Diaktoros, the Greek Detective – known as the ‘fat man’ – a detective tasked with bringing justice where there is none, and righting wrongs whose roots are sometimes buried deep.  Based around the seven sins, the books include: The Messenger of Athens (shortlisted for the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award 2008 for Breakthrough Authors and longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize), The Taint of Midas, The Doctor of Thessaly, The Lady of Sorrows, The Whispers of Nemesis (winner of the East Midlands Book Award 2011) and The Bull of Mithros