Ruling Passion (1973) – Reginald Hill
The third book in the Dalziel & Pascoe series and, after the first two genuinely excellent and totally compelling books, this one is a step down in quality. It has a fabulous opening sequence as Pascoe and his new girlfriend, Ellie, who was introduced last time in An Advancement of Learning, arrive at the country house of a couple of Pascoe’s old school friends. They’re arriving for a reunion of sorts between Pascoe and four of his old school chums; what they actually get when they arrive is a scene of mass, gruesome murder, all four of the old friends having been messily dispatched with shotgun blasts at close range. The book is somewhat surprising in that Pascoe, in a nod to the greater realism of this series than one would typically find, immediately returns to London and his job, leaving the murder of his friends to the police who actually have jurisdiction. In any other book, Pascoe would buck the rules and stick around to investigate himself. Once Pascoe gets back to London, he and Dalziel find themselves investigating the case involving a particularly brutal burglar, who’s given to violent assault and, eventually, murder of those in the houses he breaks into. It isn’t long, of course, until the burglary case seems to lead our duo back to that grisly murder of Pascoe’s college friends and, at that point, the book becomes less interesting. The first third or so of the book is very good, the middle third fair to middling and the last third pretty disappointing to be honest. Hopefully, this decline doesn’t continue. After the excellent first two, I’m prepared to keep moving in the series, this decline notwithstanding.
An April Shroud (1975) – Reginald Hill
This is the fourth book of Hill’s Dalziel & Pascoe series and Hill is to be applauded for actually trying to shake things up a bit in this novel. As the book opens, Pascoe and Ellie have just completed their wedding ceremony; after Dalziel gives a drunken toast, the pair scoot out the door and off for a honeymoon. The book then focuses on Dalziel exclusively, until the very last pages, when Pascoe returns to help the case get wrapped up. The plot is also both more traditional and surprisingly different. In a change from the typical police procedural type mystery that this series typically employs, the plot here is an old-school country house mystery. Dalziel gets stranded at a country estate by torrential rains and horrible flooding; the pater familias has just died in a horrible accident. We know where this is going. The book is an interesting experiment. Focusing on Dalziel exclusively doesn’t really work as far as I’m concerned; the book feels off balance without Pascoe. In just three books, Hill has managed to make the two leads feel like the two sides of one character; they so complete each other that this book feels incomplete with Pascoe relegated to such a small part, absent for some five-sixths of the book. On the other hand, the mystery plot is very engaging and it’s fun to see the “police procedural” Dalziel plopped unceremoniously into a “country house” setting, unable to use most the resources he generally uses to solve a crime. The book is also more humorous than any of the first three. The scene in which Pascoe and Ellie re-enter the book toward the end is gutbustingly funny; the scene where Dalziel & Pascoe pursue a small boat through the torrential floods ends with an explosively hilarious punchline at which I laughed for about five minutes. And Hill has created the most indelible supporting character of the series so far in Charley Tillotson, an eager, sincere, kind-hearted young man who also happens to be completely incompetent at everything he tries to do and a moron like one rarely encounters. And then there’s that final scene with Dalziel alone in his squalid room, musing on missed opportunities, foolish mistakes and the secrets we all have to carry with us. It’s the most emotionally effecting moment since the ending of the first novel. Flawed as it is, it’s a step back onto the right track; on the whole, better than Ruling Passion. It appears the series is on the way back up, thank goodness.
A Killing Kindness (1980) – Reginald Hill
This is the sixth book in the Dalziel & Pascoe series. And, if you’re keeping track and paying attention, yes, I have jumped from book four to book six. The fifth book, A Pinch of Snuff is easily the best in the series, only possibly excepting the first book. It’s a masterpiece of manipulation and misdirection and deserves a long form review; look for that . . . sometime. In this book, a woman’s turned up dead; immediately after said death, someone calls a local newspaper with a quote from Shakespeare: “I say we will have no more marriages.” The connection becomes plain when there’s another murder and another quote. And then another and another . . . soon enough, the murderer has a nickname: The Choker. This one is really very engaging. It’s something of a step down from A Pinch of Snuff, but that’s not this book’s fault; the problem is that A Pinch of Snuff is such a tour de force that any book would seem like a step down. This book delves deeply into the character of Sergeant Wield, a relatively minor character in the other books. I hope the series continues to explore his character as it does the characters of Dalziel, Pascoe and Ellie; his rock-bottom pragmatism, dogged determination and unflinching morality make him a compelling character thrown into the mix. Here’s hoping he sticks around. This book is extremely intricate in its plotting and detailing. With each new murder, a new batch of characters gets thrown in: more suspects, more victims, more family members. But Hill keeps tight control of every character, far past the point that most writers would be able to. There are loads of great moments and the climactic scene, in which Pascoe confronts the killer face to face is a real knockout. This series just keeps being solid as a rock; I’d actually rank this one as maybe the third best, after A Pinch of Snuff and A Clubbable Woman.
Show People (2007) – Paul Weitz
Weitz is the director who, often in collaboration with his brother Chris, has helmed films ranging from American Pie to the masterful About a Boy. He’s also a playwright and this is one of his plays. I auditioned for the role of Tom in this play at a local theater; thus the impetus to actually buy and read the play. The setup is initially fairly standard. A pair of aging Broadway actors arrives at a large house in Montauk; they’ve been hired by the wealthy owner of the house, a young man in computers, to pretend to be his parents so that he can impress his girlfriend and hopefully get her to say yes to his marriage proposal. So far, so sitcom and there are some good laughs. But then the old couple gets a bit of a surprise; it seems that the “girlfriend” is herself an actress who’s been told she’s to pretend to be the girlfriend to impress the “parents.” Given that it’s the four of them in the house, exactly who are all these performances actually for? The play is a satire on actors, obviously, and occasionally a pretty dark one. It’s funny all the way through, which is kind of rare in modern theater. It’s a good read. Enjoyable enough that I decided, after reading it, to go ahead and audition for it, so that means something, I suppose.
Scarecrow & the Army of Thieves (2011) – Matthew Reilly
I’ve been a huge fan of Matthew Reilly since 1998 when a glowing book review in my local paper got me to pick up Ice Station. I’ve read all of his books now: the stand-alones Contest & Temple, the young adult Hovercar Racer, the Jack West Jr. novels Seven Ancient Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones & The Five Greatest Warriors and, best of all, the Scarecrow novels Ice Station, Area 7, Scarecrow, Hell Island &, now, this one. Reilly is simply the best action writer of all time; he creates perfectly sketched areas for his characters to move around in and writes clear, concise, pulse-pounding action sequences. These are books that could very easily be read in one sitting and his latest is no exception. A group of terrorists get ahold of Cold War weapon that could destroy the entire planet by literally catching THE AIR on fire. Scarecrow and his team have about three hours to save the world by invading the island of the Army of Thieves. The characters are not deep or anything; in some ways they’re standard issue action story heroes and villains. But who cares? The energy level of Reilly’s writing is sky-high. He creates wonderful set pieces and then lets them spiral out of control to insane lengths (a chase down an airplane runway is a monster of an action sequence in this one) – in Temple there’s a boat chase that goes on for forty pages and never loses its headlong rush. I highly recommend this book, but, of course, you’ll have to read the other four Scarecrow novels first and, if you’re going to read those, you might as well just read the entire bibliography. You’ll be darn glad you did, trust me. I ask again, WHY haven’t these been made into movies? Well, maybe it’s no great loss; Hollywood would doubtless screw them up beyond all recognition. But we’ll always have the novels; puts every other action writer working today to shame.