A few weeks ago, after borrowing a couple of Reginald Hill books from the library, I wrote a piece comparing their different approaches in the light of the years that separated them. Having taken these back to the library now (slightly overdue, £1.68 in fines, including two other books), I saw two other Dalziel and Pascoe books presenting a similar pattern: so, here we are again.
The difference between the two books is not nearly so acute this time. A Killing Kindness (published 1980) was the sixth novel: Ed Wield has turned the duo into a three-hander, Peter Pascoe has met his old girl-friend Ellie, overcome her resistance to the Police, married her and she’s currently five months pregnant and Andy Dalziel is still Andy Dalziel.
Midnight Fugue was the sequel to A Cure for all Diseases. Published in 2009, it was Reginald Hill’s twenty-fourth Dalziel and Pascoe novel, but sadly his and their last. It was, in the terms I discussed previously, a much better book than A Cure for all Diseases. It was also a harbinger of change, change denied as time would have it. A twenty-fifth book would have been very much awaited, the Fat Man and his protege have not reached but actually passed a turning point.
The earlier book is Hill in fine form. The series is well-established, the characters firmly placed. Pascoe has been promoted to Inspector, not that it’s made any general difference to the coarse and caustic attitude with which his superior regards him. Dalziel is still a thundering bull, with a disregard for the finer feelings of everyone around him, except in one, as-yet undisclosed area.
The book begins with a slight flourish of the later Hill, in a fanciful, subjective setting that, within a page, reveals itself to be the transcript of a bizarre seance recorded by Wieldy. This early on, Hill doesn’t allow such things to outlast welcomes, and the seance proves to be of unlikely accuracy as the book winds its way through.
The action is in media res. The murder – three of them to date – has already occurred, and the murderer has a press-imposed name: the Yorkshire Choker. A widow and two young, freshly-engaged women have been strangled. The Police have, as yet, no leads. The whole book is primarily focused upon the working out of the crime, the pursuit of leads, the eventual determination of the actual killer – present throughout but under no suspicion of involvement until close to the end, when belated information reveals an unsuspected, unconceived link.
It’s Dalziel and Pascoe’s first serial killer: most of the deaths that occur in the course of the investigation are forced on the killer by the need to cover-up, to escape being found out, but those that have led to his cognomen are a consequence of the killer’s mental state.
In the end there is a confession, and one that lays bare the strange, self-centred, mental issues that prompt the series of crimes, overlaid by a religious mindset that plays its part in the seemingly-kindly (in the murderer’s mind) motive for killing. The confession is ruled inadmissible in court, the murderer acquitted. But punishment is not far behind, in an ending that is poetic in its justice, but less clear than it might be about its provenance.
A Killing Kindness is a very good book, but in some respects a book of its times, and slightly behind them. Hill has expanded his universe to include Ellie Soper/Pascoe, an intelligent and forthright woman with a feminist bent. Given that this was written in 1980, Ellie’s attitudes seem to a degree out-of-date. She was introduced in 1970, in the very throes of first wave feminism, and she’s still very vocal about it, especially when it comes to Fat Andy. But she’s also vocal about it with much less need with her husband.
Nevertheless, Ellie’s a model of nuance compared to her friend Thelma Lacewing (introduced in the previous book of the series), physically beautiful, professionally a dental assistant, but all strident feminist, for whom the Police have one position in life – in the wrong. Hill is never an unsubtle writer, but in Thelma he comes perilously near to constructing a caricature. Nevertheless, her interpolations are always aligned to the thrust of the story, and are far from being ‘local colour’.
Then again, in some of his attitudes, Andy Dalziel comes over as a caricature, and in some of the things he comes out with, I can hear a lot of John Mortimer’s less-edifying swipes at modern life.
Also introduced a book ago is the extremely ugly, extremely self-controlled, extremely efficient Detective Sergeant Edgar Wield. Wieldy’s the Third Man, the new pole, the neutral, the earth. He’s a masterful technical device, the impassive and almost unbelievably stable workhorse who constructs the stage on which the two official leads are allowed to strike off each other. He’s also resolutely homosexual, firmly in the closet, and someone with great depths. Wieldy is essential to this book.
In contrast to the previous comparison, Midnight Fugue is actually (just) the shorter of the two books, 362 (hardback) pages to A Killing Kindness‘s 370 (in paperback). It’s a much tighter, more compact book, whose story covers a period of less than sixteen hours. Hill emphasises the speed of the book by breaking it into sections keyed to specific time periods: 8.10 – 8.17, 16.31 – 16.37 etc.
Overall, the book is broken into four musical phrases and a short coda, each prefaced by a musical stave and an Italian musical phrase that I honestly cannot care to translate. There are a handful of deaths in the story, only one of which is a murder and that a long way into the story, but Midnight Fugue is not about present murder.
It’s about a cop suspected of graft, who’s been missing for seven years after a personal tragedy, about his wife who’s all set to get presumption of death and re-marry but who’s drawn to Yorkshire by a fake photo that suggests her husband’s still alive. It’s about a vicious Jamaican gang-boss turned legit, with an MP son who’s a shoo-in to be Prime Minister after next if scandal doesn’t trip him up.
And it’s about Andy Dalziel, ten days back in harness, back prematurely and trying to reassert himself as top dog, when he’s not entirely sure in his own mind. It begins with Dalziel getting confused over days and setting off for Monday morning’s weekly case review on Sunday morning, being accused of being a kerb-crawler, and allowing himself to try to tone up his mind on unofficial business that gets very official indeed when DC Shirley Novello, backing him up, gets cracked round the head with a sawn-off shotgun.
There are considerably more diversions in and around the plain line of the investigation than in A Killing Kindness, but unlike A Cure for all Diseases, these are all elements of the same picture.
In the middle of it all, visible but untouchable, is Goldie Goldman. The missing copper had sold out to him, despite everybody’s doubts, and for the most understandable and human of reasons. Goldie likes keeping things tidy, and the Delays – brother and sister – are his reliable strong arms. They commit the only murder – almost accidental – of someone unrelated to Goldie’s story, a poor sod chasing a totally different scandal, and they die at the end, a double suicide.
The coda features Goldie’s death, at the hands of a minor character seeking revenge, a beautifully hidden figure from Goldie’s extreme past who’s gotten past all his clever defences by being completely innocent.
Midnight Fugue is very much a late Reginald Hill novel. Doubtless there is subtlety to those musical sections, but given how much the story regains a purity of involvement long overdue to my mind, I refuse to seek out subtleties I do not need. I celebrate Hill’s recapturing of the thrill of crime fiction writing, and I contemplate the windows he opens into a future that never arrives. Peter Pascoe ends as still the underling to Andy Dalziel: much, much closer to him in importance, influence and command, a command the Fat Man acknowledges within that will be surrendered to his equal. The next book would have been well worth waiting for, but we will have to wait forever.