Dialogues of the Dead (Reginald Hill)


In the Golden Age, the detective story was known as “the grandest game in the world.”  Some authors, overly conscious of their intelligence, attempted to make the detective story a glorified game of chess, a map of symbols and arcana with the human element neglected or even completely abandoned.  Hill’s latest Dalziel and Pascoe, Dialogues of the Dead or Paronomania, is a giant word game, with anagrams, chronograms, acrostics and crosswords abounding, a novel more about ideas than people, in particular words and the role they play in communication and society.  Characterisation, however, is as strong as ever, but the characters are suspects first and characters second, so there is less emotional impact than in other books.  Dalziel (largely present for comic relief) and Pacoe (now decidedly middle-aged, and obsessed with Franny Roote, whom he suspects of murder) are seen from the perspective of the young, headstrong and somewhat insubordinate DC Bowler, whose romance with an attractive librarian is one of the main strands of this tangled web.  The central plot is the serial murders committed by the Wordman, who has “a puzzler’s mind, the kind that sees everything in terms of hidden answers, and deceptions, and references, and connections, and riddles, and wordgames”—perhaps an extension of Hill himself, able “like an author…[to] prune, reflect, adjust, refine, till my words say precisely what I want them to say and show no trace of my passage.”  Linguistics, semantics, psychology, religion and literature are all involved, with the OED at the very heart of it all.  Following seven gory murders, the bizarre solution comes as an utter surprise.  A minor flaw is that the character accused has shown few signs of insanity—the clues are all textual rather than psychological.