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Dialogues of the Dead

by Reginald Hill (Harper Collins, 2001)

Reginald Hill is more or less invisible in India—he even drew a blank in Calcutta, the bibliophilic [apolgies if the usage is incorrect!] capital of the country—and it was only by placing an order with Harper Collins that the entire series minus one was obtained from the UK. The bank balance took a body blow, but who says money can’t buy satisfaction?

Dialogues of the Dead is basically a serial killer story. A mad man (or woman, for all we know) seems to be randomly killing off various people, and there seems to be no singular pattern. A drowning, a traffic accident, a stabbing, an electrocution… there is no common thread. The crimes don’t seem to be sexually motivated, the victims not related in any manner that is obvious, and motive is a puzzle. But what is troubling Superintendent Andrew Dalziel (Dee-ell), head of Mid-Yorkshire CID, and his team even more are the Dialogues.

Taking refuge at first in a short story competition being run by the local rag, someone seems to be taking credit for the murders by sending in a series of Dialogues. Is it just someone’s idea of a joke or is it a very well-read and literary psychopath at work?

Though initially tempted to take it as a joke, Detective Constable Hat Bowler, the latest addition to the Mid-Yorkshire Constabulary CID, discovers it to be a good excuse to get closer to the object of his affections, librarian Raina (Rye-na) Pomona. But as the murders pile on and the Dialogues tumble in, the hunt for the Wordman—as he is christened—begins in earnest, and spins into a high-tension climax, which suddenly gives way to a macabre twist.

Published in 2001, by Dialogues of the Dead Reginald Hill was already an old hand at playing with the language as well as with the heads of his readers. Interspersed with the main plot—the hunt for the killer—is Hat Bowler and Rye Pomona’s romance, county library politics, police corruption, and more. Detective Chief Inspector Pascoe, still fresh from a case which had put his wife and daughter in danger, is close to being obsessed with a man known as Franny Roote, which forms yet another side story. The Dialogues themselves, rendered in their full glory, tantalize and befuddle. We know that the killer is someone we know! “Dialogues of the Dead,” says crimer writer Val McDermid, quoted from the Sunday Express on the back cover, “is a bridge that spans the classic English whodunit and the dark heart of comtemporary crime fiction, the serial-killer novel.”

Dalziel is as crass as ever, but has enough class to go to an army regimental ball in a kilt and carry it off! And it is best not to be fooled by his philistine-like exterior, for as his second-in-command Pascoe has learnt the hard way over the years, rising to the Fat Man’s goading can leave you humiliated and battered. Pascoe, who considers himself a “clever bugger” has been on the rough side of many a verbal duel with Dalziel, and knows better now. (So, when the Fat Man uses the term “corntuplicated”, the DCI is not surprised to find it in the Oxford English Dictionary!) While Dalziel appears to take great delight in rubbing everyone up the wrong way, he is indisputably a great leader, which makes him, alternately, an object of loathing and admiration.

Pascoe observed him with a sympathy he was careful not to show. Dalziel drove his troops mercilessly when the occasion demanded, but he took his own bumps and rarely passed them on to his underlings. Going up or coming down, the buck stopped with Andy Dalziel.

Even DC Bowler, one of the police force’s fast-track graduates transferred from the Midlands—without Dalziel’s approval, it must be said—knowing that he has not done anything to win the Fat Man’s affections, ends up with grudging respect for him. The taciturn Wield, with his computer brain and reputation for efficiency, has not been spared Dalziel’s influence over the years either:

“So some sod’s pinched one of my burins.” [says a young female artist to Wield, who was probably well aware that a burin is a chisel-like instrument]
“Oh aye? Happens a lot when you’re wearing tights, does it?” said Wield.
Pascoe… stifled a smile. Live with Andy Dalziel, something was bound to rub off.

While there is not much about either Pascoe or Wield’s personal lives in the book, there are enough hints to show how things stand. After the upheavals chronicled in Arms and the Women, where Ellie Pascoe was in danger, and the previous book, On Beulah Height, where they almost lost their daughter, Rosie, apparently the Pascoes have recovered well. Ellie is still an annoying snob; Pascoe still a bit of an ass; and Rosie still stuck at pre-adolesence!

Edgar Wield, the perpetual sergeant, has been “at peace” with his homosexuality for some years now, and seems settled with his crotchety partner, Edwin Digweed:

He [Edgar Wield] had little interest in art but his partner, Edwin Digweed, had wanted to come. Sensing Wield’s reluctance he had said acidly, “Very well. I shall remember this next time you want me to attend an autopsy.” Any more realistic argument might have made Wield dig his heels in, but this made him smile and give in with a good grace, neither of which would have been detectable to a stranger but both of which Digweed spotted and appreciated.

And though Andy Dalziel obviously has some oblique affection and respect for his colleague of many years—indeed, he has protected Wield from getting into many a tight situation regarding his private life—it doesn’t make Wield immune to his innuendo-ridden pokes (even though Wield is well able to get his own back at times):

“You can’t go to jail for playing games, not even two fellows having a romp together, so long as it is between consenting adults in private, eh, Wieldy?”
“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant. “Except if you call it rugby football, when you can sell folk tickets to watch, so they tell me.”

While Dialogues of the Dead, with its rather horrifying ending that makes you want to reach immediately for the next book in the series, is a wholly satisfying read, there are a couple of question marks. For one, the dramatic revelation after the climax is done and dusted seemed a trifle contrived. After telling a tale of such calibre and with so much style, it was almost “cheating”—an easy way out to embroider a twist in the tale.

Also, one has to wonder if Hill is a literary snob. It is a little tiring—not to mention trifle unbelieveable—that almost all major characters seem to have a classical education and all always talk in a “clever bugger” manner, with puns around every corner. Even those of non-academic backgrounds seem redeemed only by their knowledge of classical literature, as in the case of Dalziel, who, admittedly, is rather more well-read than he lets on.

But then, what I call his literary snobbishness, is probably the same thing that makes me want to reach for a pencil when I see a memorable quote! And, of course, let it not be forgotten that this is a story about words, about paronomasia to be exact.

This Dalziel and Pascoe novel makes one realize that if possible, the series should be read in their right order. Having known who the killer was spoilt a lot of the drama. Yet it was unputdownable. We all know that Andy Dalziel is the cleverest bugger of them all, but sometimes Peter Pascoe has his moments too.

RATING: 8/10