Indomitable, indefatigable, and inflexible have all been words to describe the Mid –Yorkshires constabulary's Andy Dalziel. But more surprising is how many people call him friend. No matter how exasperated Ellie and Peter Pascoe, or Sgt. Wield get with "Fat Andy" there is no thought in any of their minds of that presence ever vanishing.
Like a mountain or other large part of the scenery seen every day, life without Chief Superintendent Andy Dalziel coercing the next round out of his subordinates is unimaginable. Which makes his being brought down by a bomb at a suspected terrorist site all the more unbelievable. Not just laid up for a few days either, but in a coma from which he may never rise again.
Terror and terrorism confined to London in modern Great Britain and no matter how far north your go, even into the wilds of Yorkshire; its effects are being felt. With Andy down it's up to his far more politically correct subordinate Peter Pascoe to liaison with the Counter terrorist troops that storm the Mid-Yorkshire police headquarters in an attempt to drag as much information out of the site's ruins as possible.
In Death Comes For The Fat Man Reginald Hill has gathered together his familiar cast of characters from the Mid Yorkshire constabulary and thrown them up against every police officers' worst nightmare. A beloved colleague brought down in the line of duty and you're not able or allowed to do anything about seeking out those responsible.
For Peter Pascoe his frustration at being relegated to the sidelines by the counter terrorist squad is only made worse by the feelings of guilt he is suffering for having been literally sheltered from the worst of the blast by the bulk of his superior officer. It only increases his frustration and anger to find out that those responsible are in actual fact vigilante anti-terrorists who are being covertly assisted by the very people who are supposed to be investigating their activities.
In other words Reginald Hill has set-up all the right ingredients for a typical hunt the spy among the spies while you hunt down the killers that has been the hallmark of good British mystery writing since Le Carré. But the wonderful thing about Reginald Hill books is the fact that he goes off in directions unexpected and poses questions that maybe some of us would rather not think about.
There's a great deal of fuss made these days about the intelligent person's murder mystery as opposed to the old fashioned pulp fiction style of Raymond Chandler, or the detective pulling it out of the hat style popularized by Dame Agatha. But even they have become formulaic with the troubled, alcohol plagued, solitary male who can't keep a relationship on the rails, or the woman who has to be as tough as the men but keep in touch with her feminine side. You wonder when they ever have time to do any police work they're so troubled.
That's the great thing about Reginald Hill's books. He never loses track of who his people are and what they do for a living. Instead of making it an oddity for a cop to be human and have emotions, while all those around him or her are either on the take or louts of the first degree, it is commonplace among his characters.
He is also far too adroit a writer to ever make all of his villains evil wankers carrying bags marked swag, or to let liberal niceties prevent him from writing truths. For example in some parts of England today there are elements in the Muslim community who would have supported the decision to bomb the underground and who could very well be planning some other such activity.
But just as Hill won't shy away from that truth, he doesn't shy away from the truth that there is just as sizable a number of English Christians for whom the sun has never set on the empire and who believe the only good wog is a dead one. It's a collection of these types who have formed themselves into a group called the Templers; named after one of the more fanatical groups of knights from the time of the Crusades. (Hill also shows himself capable of having fun at his own expense when Peter is researching the Templers in a book store and the proprietor makes comments about them being all the rage in books right now because of that damned De Vinci Code)
The bomb that caught Andy was their handiwork, although it was the occupants of the video store who were the target and the police were just an unfortunate accident. You see the Templers have decided to carry on the work of their namesakes and kill the Infidels who have in their eyes escaped justice. In other words found not guilty by the courts but not by the Templers.
At first Peter has a policeman's usual abhorrence for vigilantes and their scorn for the systems of government. But what if Andy were to die? What might happen if he caught up to the Templers who did this and Andy had crossed over as he continually threatened to do? What is fuelling his obsession to hunt them down at all costs if not a need for vengeance?
Is he that much different from them? When he realizes how well protected they are, and they might just get away with it he begins to wonder. What would he do if he found out they would escape prosecution, or get off with a slap on the wrist because knowing and proving are two different things?
These are his thoughts as he hunts for Andy's attackers across England. Sneaking around behind the backs of his new friends in Counter Terrorism, who have conveniently seconded him to their service where they hope to keep him under wraps. But Peter hasn't been under the tutelage of Andy Dalziel all these years for nothing. Piece by piece he puts together the jigsaw puzzle with help from the most unlikely of sources.
Constable Hector, who thought he heard the shot that brought everyone to the scene, has always been a standing joke around the dept. The idiot child of the Mid-Yorkshire force turns out though to be close to savant when it comes to drawing faces from memory.
When someone tries to clean up a loose end in Hector and tries a hit and run that fails, Hector is able to draw the driver's face from memory. When the same face turns up on the back of a novel about counter terrorism in the Gulf War, as its author, and in Hector's room trying to visit him after the accident Peter knows they have one of their men.
Reginald Hill delivers another wonderful book with two of the most memorable detectives in the Parthenon of British detective writing. How many other authors have created a character that can dominate it even when they are laid up in a coma for the majority of the book. Oh all right Andy does a little astral projecting, negotiates with death on occasion, but it's nawt much more then he usually does in a day's work, as I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you over the pint that you bought him.
Reginald Hill writes books that are about people who happen to solve crimes because they are cops, but they are also people and as such he has succeeded in bringing one of the most human faces to policing of any of the writers of crime fiction alive today. Death Comes For The Fat Man is touching, scary, funny, and very human all at once.
There is a crime to be solved, and murders to be prevented, but there are also lives to live and hopefully to be celebrated and not mourned. Death Comes For The Fat Man is available in Canada through Random House Canada and various online retailers like Amazon.ca.
(Originally posted in March 2007)
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.