Reginald Hill: Midnight Fugue (2009)

Gina Wolfe has come to Yorkshire to search for her missing husband who disappeared seven years previously leaving no traces. She thought he was dead but has been sent a photograph of him from a local newspaper. Her fiance, Mick Purdy of the Met, contacts Andy Dalziel to ask for his help. This sets in progress a chain of dramatic events in both Yorkshire and London which Hill traces over the course of a day.

As always when assessing a new Hill, especially a new DandP, the thorny question arises of whether to judge it against other mystery fiction or by the standards of Hill’s own work. In general I prefer to take the latter course and try and see where the book fits into the canon. However it is generally important to remark, just to clear up any misunderstandings, that in terms of the former, this, like all Hill’s work, is something of a shining beacon. His continuing technical and formal innovation (in this case the use of the ’24 hour’ format), the quality of his prose, his plotting, his ability to vary the mood, his characterisation; all these things are streets ahead of the majority of current, or indeed past, mystery writers.

This important qualification noted I pass to the more interesting analysis of why I found Midnight Fugueone of the lesser entries in the DandP canon. In part I think there are a couple of personal reasons for this. My own preference is for Hill in his more literary and whimsical mood; Pictures of Perfection, Death’s Jest Book, indeed last year’s A Cure For All Diseases are among my personal favourites. This is not to say that I fail to recognise his excellence in other moods; and indeed his ability to write books of varied types within one series is one of the qualities that assures his greatness. But it remains a preference. The other personal bias is that I am made uneasy by the examination of Dalziel’s possible fallibility which occupies much of the first half or two thirds of the book. Now this is somewhat absurd; it is exactly what Hill should be doing with Dalziel given what has happened over the past two series entries. But nonetheless I want my Dalziel to be that unstoppable, near omniscient, force of nature whom we have grown to know and love over the past decades. Any objective analysis should applaud Hill for this step, applauding his ability to scrutinise his own institution – and objectively I do; but it still left me as a fan a little shaken and unsure!

If however I discount these two personal problems I am left with what I hope are more reasonable and considered issues. All of these centre around the characters and scenes set in London either as part of the book’s narrative or as back-story. In particular the gangster turned businessman and Tory sponsor David ‘Goldie’ Gidman and his son, aspiring Tory politician David Gidman the Third (or Dave the Turd!). I was never convinced by these portraits. I appreciate that Hill is partly in satiric mode here and I am all for satiric Tory bashing. But even so there was something lacking, or perhaps too much being attempted. Even Hill cannot combine satire and realism and I felt there was some clash in his writing here. At times it even felt almost like sailing close to stereotype. Perhaps it was this which prompted him into making a rare error when Dave the Turd is asked by a journalist about rumours of a post in the Cabinet, when as far as I can tell the book is set very much in 2009 and the Tories are not yet in Number 10. Whatever the reasons the non-Yorkshire parts of the book felt uneasy to me, not wholly convincing or assured.

When we moved back to Yorkshire and the full cast of characters – Pascoe, Ellie, Wield, Novello, Bowler etc. – appeared Hill was quickly back in full magnificent swing however. The confrontations between our central pair were especially moving and assured. The relationship between D and P is quite simply without parallel in the history of mystery writing; it has a psychological depth, assurance, longevity which sets it very clearly apart from any and all competitors.

How to sum up? On the one hand Midnight Fugue is written at a level which very few contemporary mystery writers could even aspire to let alone accomplish. On the other I have to say that it is, for me, one of the weaker entries in the series and as such something of a disappointment. For once I was not, as I often am with Hill, really saddened when the book ended; and for once it is possible that a new DandP will not be my mystery of the year. Well at least that opens the way for others!