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Bones and Silence

by Reginald Hill (Dell, 1990)

Clever buggers didn’t play clever buggers with other clever buggers.
(Andy Dalziel)

An excerpt from a review of Bones and Silence says, “Hill’s… humour, keenness, and insight place him securely in the company of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Reginald Hill soars far above any other contemporary crime fiction writer, and it is not just his storytelling abilities that set him apart. For when he created Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel (pronounced, as I will never tire reminding, Dee-ell), he created an irresitible force, an immoveable object, an irrepressible character.

Though I cannot say this with certainty—not having read many of Hill’s earlier works—this seems to be one of the first Dalziel and Pascoe books where Hill tried the multiple storylines formula. Dalziel is getting anonymous letters from a woman who wants to kill herself in a, hitherto unmentioned, dramatic fashion. While he meanders back and forth between taking her seriously and writing her off as a nutcase, one thing he definitely cannot ignore is another woman who died in Dalziel’s own (almost literally) backyard. Not to mention a little bit of trouble Mid-Yorkshire is having with football hooligans.

All this is positioned against a massive dramatic production by a theatre director called Eileen Chung, a large and beautiful Eurasian woman. She plans an ambitious recreation of the York and Wakefield Cycles of the Medieval Mystery Plays, and she wants Dalziel to play God!

At kick-off we have our hero Dalziel drunk and throwing up in a bucket in his kitchen, heartily blaming a glass of mineral water. Thus, when he glimpses a resplendent, topless woman at the next-door window, he puts it down to hallucination. But suddenly:

It switched from soft porn to all action movie…. a man moving… something in his hand… another man… a sound as explosive as a cough.
(p.16)

Dalziel rushes in to find two men, a revolver and a dead woman with her face blown away. But what seems cut and dried to him, ends up as a long, frustrating case. Dalziel is convinced the man with the gun has murdered his wife, but everyone else is convinced it was suicide. And when a key witness disappears, all Dalziel can do is grind his teeth in frustration.

Bones and Silence has Dalziel at his imperious best, though at times he seems to be on a sticky wicket:

When Dan Trimble [Dalziel’s boss, the Chief Constable] summoned him, he knew he was like a batsman walking out, unhelmeted and boxless, to face the West Indian attack.
(p.253)
It was the ultimate degradation. Yorked by a Cornishman! No point in even bothering to look at the umpire. Slowly, sadly, Dalziel walked away.
(p.255)

Hill’s idiomatic style coupled with a wicked sense of humour makes this a very satisfying read. Dalziel, as usual, is delightfully contrary. He keeps alternately telling Pascoe off for ignoring the anonymous letters and then wasting valuable police time on them! It is also hard to imagine that the same man who greets a woman with, “By God, you are a big ‘un!” can show such canny (though well-hidden) sensitivity in handling Wield’s mistaken-identity gay assault incident.

As for Wield. He’s still alone, but finally at peace with himself. He’s still as efficient as ever, but there is ample evidence that he is human. Not only does he get savagely beaten by a bunch of hooligans (he gets away only by shouting that he has AIDS and sprinkling his attackers with his blood, saying if they don’t wash it off in sixty seconds, they will all get infected!), he also lets a witness disappear from under his nose. Wield forms an amusing foil between Dalziel and the newly promoted Pascoe sometimes:

Both men looked at Wield. Both shook their heads sadly, inviting support. Wield arranged the Alpine rugosites of his face into what he hoped was a Swiss neutrality and quickly turned away.
(p.338)

As consistently brilliant as ever, Bones and Silence is a story about clever buggers. We’d like to think the cleverest bugger of them all is Dalziel. But can even God be fallible?

RATING: 8/10