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Death’s Jest-Book

by Reginald Hill (Avon, 2003)

Though it could stand alone as a single novel, Death’s Jest-Book is actually a sequel, picking up the story from where Dialogues of the Dead left off. It sees Reginald Hill at his very best as complex subplots mesh with even more complicated characters and threaten to rip asunder the lives of our beloved Mid-Yorkshire CID team.

The gruesome conclusion to the Wordman case brought to the end a series of apparently random killings by a lunatic christened the Wordman. But now the Wordman is dead.

Or is he?

There are enough questions about the death of the so-called killer, and about the extremely violent face-off between him and a police detective that spelt his end. Suspicions of a “cover-up” run in certain circles, though CID boss, Superintendent Andrew Dalziel (Dee-ell), insists on describing it—within his own little trusted circle—as a “clean-up”. And he is adamant that should the excretory matter hit the fan, he is the one who will turn his face to the breeze.

Meanwhile, Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe’s obsession with ex-con Franny Roote is taking on increasingly bizarre proportions. Pascoe is convinced that the letters Roote is writing to him are covertly threatening even though he goes out of his way to mention that they are not. The chief inspector is not at all convinced that a prison sentence and Roote’s attempt at getting an education and putting his life back on track are all innocent. Despite the better judgement of boss Dalziel, friend and colleague Edgar Wield, and especially wife Ellie, Pascoe is extremely suspicious of Roote’s intentions.

Detective Sergeant Hat Bowler, however, has no illusions about his intentions. Secure though he is in his love for librarian Rye Pomona, he has no idea of the turmoil in the young woman’s life. But as the story of Pomona’s life unfolds, we discover that “the most terrible of crimes can go undetected and unpunished” (back cover), and also that there is more than meets the eye as far as she goes.

Sergeant Wield’s personal and professional lives intertwine dangerously when he “rescues” a teenage prostitute from an attempted kidnapping. For the first time that we have known him, the taciturn and imperturbable Wield is unsure of himself. While the youngster sees Wield as a father figure and begins to perform the role of an unofficial informant to get close to him, the sergeant is uncomfortable:

As Sergeant Wield approached Turk’s his clear and well-ordered mind, long used to separating the various areas of his life into water-tight compartments, had no problem setting out what he was doing.
He was an officer… on duty, going to meet a nineteen-year-old rent boy who might possibly have information which would be of interest to the police.
He was alone because said rent boy was not a registered informant…. but a member of the public who had indicated he wanted to speak to Wield only.
So far, so normal. The only abnormality was that he was having to remind himself!
(p.110)

Wield’s partner Edwin Digweed plays a small but prominent role in the book. Unlikely though it sounds, it is Digweed who seems to reassure Wield about his relationship with the rent boy. While one might argue that it shows the softer and more reasonable side of Digweed, it is still a little difficult to digest. The affection between the two men is obvious, but it is rather improbable that even the most understanding and loving partner could ever be absolutely comfortable with their other half’s involvement with a prostitute, be it purely for professional reasons! When Wield receives a pair of initialled silver cuff links from the boy for Christman and is worried about Digweed’s reaction and offers to return them, Digweed says:

“My dear Edgar… I may shoot you but I will never play the sulky jealous type…. Also, in my experience, cuff links are not the type of gift a lad gives to his lover. They are more what a son gives to his dad. So, no jealously, believe me. But some concern. You may not be attracted to young Lubanski, but you are sorry for him and, to a man in your position, that can be more dangerous than sex. You will take care, won’t you?”
(p.273)

As another reviewer once pointed out, would Ellie Pascoe have been quite so understanding if Peter had been concerning himself too much with a female teengae prostitute? Not likely!

On the whole, however, Death’s Jest-Book is gripping and suspenseful, though not exactly a classical detective story, in that there is no body! Rather, it is not a murder that results in the plot, but a plot that results in a body right towards the end. Franny Roote’s detailed letters to Pascoe form an entertaining aside, as Hill once again shows himself to be a master at multiple narratives. Pascoe’s obsession with Roote is alternately exasperating and intriguing, and the reader—not to mention Pascoe himself!— is unsure till the very last about his real motive.

Detective Constable Shirley Novello is back in action after being injured on duty, and shows promise of breaking into the Holy Trinity of Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield sometime in the future. Hat Bowler comes across a bit naive, however, and it will be interesting to see how his character develops given what happens in this book.

In all, Reginald Hill tells an unusual and brilliant tale, but one that will be best enjoyed if read after Dialogues of the Dead. He proves that knowing the murderer’s identity need not be a spoiler after all.

RATING: 8/10