There was a time when I was under the illusion that when I read a mystery story I stood a fair chance of figuring out "who done it" before the end of the book came about and the author would have his investigator reveal the criminal. I would studiously examine all the clues left at the scene of the murder and pay close attention to the answers supplied by witnesses and potential suspects in the hopes of being able to suss out who the killer was. While my success rate wasn't great I just put that down to my own lack of skill in that area, not any nefarious plot on the part of authors preventing me from discovering who the killer was.
However, after years of reading mystery stories by some of the most accomplished writers of the genre I've come to realize that while I may never be detective material, my inability to solve mysteries in books was completely unrelated to any failings I might have in that area. After numerous fruitless quests involving the re-reading of texts in an effort to spot any clues that I may have missed that pointed to the killer and or his/her motivation, and only rarely finding anything substantial, it became obvious that most authors had no intention of letting you figure out who the culprit was.
If that's the case, than what's the point in reading a mystery novel? While its true that with some of the older writers like Agatha Chrisitie there were occasions where it was possible for a reader to uncover the culprit, at least fifty percent of the time it was a matter of sitting back and letting ourselves be impressed by the skills of one of her favourite investigators. It wasn't just the late Dame Agatha whose works were along those lines either; how many of you can actually claim to have picked up on the clues that Sherlock Holmes utilized in unravelling the mysteries set forth by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?
Is it any wonder that mystery stories were for such a long time relegated to a lower class of fiction. It wasn't until the appearance of writers like P.D.James, Jean Le Carre, and others that mystery and suspense stories began to be taken seriously. While a mystery to be solved still remained at the heart of the matter, the whole genre came in for a serious shake up as the authors began to delve deeply into the psyches of their characters and create plots that were just as interested in life as they were murder and mayhem. Reginald Hill has been one of the more prolific of the new breed of mystery story writers, but as his latest release from Random House Canada, A Cure For All Diseases, shows this hasn't affected his ability to create highly intriguing reads.
Like a great many of his contemporaries part of Hill's success has been his ability to create lead characters that have captured reader's imaginations. Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Peter Pascoe head a cast of police officers, their significant others, and a variety of local colour, residing in the Yorkshire district of Northern England. As the two lead officers in the Mid-Yorkshire constabulary Criminal Investigation Division (CID) Dalziel (pronounced Deal) and Pascoe have been responsible for solving everything from terrorist attacks to serial killings that have occurred on their patch. After twenty-two novels featuring the same cast of characters you'd think that a certain amount of staleness or predictability might have set in when it comes to plots and character development.
However, with A Cure For All Diseases Hill shows that familiarity does not have to breed contempt, as he takes us on a wonderful ride into the previously uncharted waters of alternative medicines, private convalescent homes, and pig farming. Perhaps only in a world created by Reginald Hill, and occupied by Andy Dalziel, could these three seemingly unrelated subjects come together with such panache, but then again murder, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Of course when we last saw Dalziel it looked like his chances of being anybody's bedfellow again were slim as a terrorist bomb had plunked him into a coma for a month.
In an attempt to spare the public health system any further strain upon its limited resources, Dalziel's love interest, animal rights activist "Cap" Marvel, has offered to help cover the cost of sending him to a posh convalescent home by the sea in order to speed his recovery along. Ironically for a town that is trying to establish itself as an epoch centre for healing facilities, Sandytown, where Andy's facility is located, soon finds itself host to that most final cure for all diseases - death in the form of murder.
Lady Daphne Denham, the former Mrs. Hog Hollis, who inherited Hollis's Hams - pigs and all - and her money from her first husband and her title from her second husband, was one of the two movers and shakers behind turning Sandytown into a modern day Mecca of medicinal wonders. Unlike her business partner, Tom Parker, though her motives are less than altruistic, as she's more interested in turning a profit than helping others take a turn for the better.
Aside from being known to be tight fisted when it comes to money, it's common knowledge that she keeps her three closest kin on a tight leash through the threat of leaving them out of her will. So when her body turns up done to a turn in a hog roasting machine at an event to celebrate the town's new status as home to the healthy, suspicion soon falls on the three who stand to gain the most monetarily by her death.
However, as DCI Pascoe and his team discover when they wash up on the shores of Sandytown, there's more than three people who had good reason to be glad to see Lady Daphne shuffle off this mortal coil. The American doctor heading Andy's convalescent home who she's blackmailing into marrying her, the acupuncturist whose secret she has threatened to reveal, her first husband's brother who believes she cheated him out of his rightful inheritance, the nurse who is in love with the above mentioned doctor, and even her financial advisor, all have reasons for having had her slow cooked on a spit.
One of the most attractive aspects of Reginald Hill's writing is the seemingly haphazard way in which he allows events to unfold. While at times the book takes on the air of a farce in progress, there is a tension beneath the light hearted tone that ensures we never forget that someone has been murdered.
Like his central characters, Dalziel and Pascoe, it is not good to underestimate Hill, and mistake the occasional breeziness of his prose as casualness. Every glance taken, and every word spoken (or written) by his characters reveals something that may or may not be pertinent to the circumstances at hand. Just when you think you are standing on solid ground and coming to grips with what's going on in the story, the rock turns into sand and shifts beneath your feet.
Yet it's not as if we weren't cognizant of all the facts needed to solve the case. Hill's not one of those who springs things on you at the last minute by revealing the butler is really the long lost illegitimate child of the deceased, but he doesn't spoon feed the information to you either. Like his police officers we are given the information through the observations of various characters and he leaves it to us to try and assemble the truth of the matter. Murder is a convoluted and messy business and Hill never lets us forget that for a moment.
As is usual for one of Hill's books A Cure For All Diseases is not just a murder mystery, it is also a study of human nature. It never does to be complacent when reading his books, for even those characters we think we know from reading his previous books still have unplumbed depths to them that yield new insights into what makes them tick. Even beneath the thick skin of the stalwart Andy Dalziel things are percolating that will have you re-accessing your previous thoughts on his character.
Just as there's more to Hill's characters than meets the eye, A Cure For All Diseases hides within its covers more than you'd expect from a murder mystery, which is what makes it special. Yes its a delight to read, but its also thought provoking and strangely moving. Mystery stories today can be a far cry from the old drawing room dramas where the killer is revealed in the last frame, and the genre is far better for it, and reading Reginald Hill is to be reminded just how much better it has become.
(Originally posted October 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.