Hill, Reginald. Dialogues of the Dead.

NY: Delacorte, 2001.

This long-running mystery series (of which this is the 17th volume) started out in 1970 as nothing remarkable. Well enough written, but pretty standard stuff about the detecting adventures of the bluntly profane and bearlike Superintendent Dalziel, head of Mid-Yorkshire CID, and his sidekick, the university-educated Peter Pascoe — originally a detective sergeant, now a chief inspector. Later, we met Sergeant Wield, who is gay, the ugliest cop in the country, and has a mind like a computer.

As the series progressed, the plots became more complex, the characters much more subtle, and the author’s style bloomed remarkably. Hill eventually became known as a leading creator of “literary mysteries,” right up there with P. D. James and Elizabeth George.

Many years (and books ) ago, in the case during which Pascoe met his wife-to-be, then a university lecturer, the young cop was responsible for sending a student named Francis Roote to prison as accessory to murder. Franny was a model prisoner, finished his degree while inside, added a master’s, and started work on a Ph.D. A fine example of rehabilitation, right? Except Pascoe is convinced Roote is really a brilliant sociopath who is laughing at all of them. This obsession has already gotten him in trouble when it turned out Roote was innocent of later crimes of which Pascoe suspected him. But now, as people begin dying one after another, each murder accompanied by a letter describing the crime, Franny Roote is again Pascoe’s culprit of choice. But could the young man really be a serial killer?

Meanwhile, CID has a new constable, “Hat” Bowler — young, bright, enthusiastic, and falling hard for Rye Pomona, a staff member at the city library. But the reader will become aware that there’s a lot more there than appears on the surface. And threaded through the story is the mournful presence of Thomas Beddoes, early 19th-century poet and playwright, the subject of Roote’s mentor’s researches.

And then, just when you think all the mysteries have been solved and all the questions answered in the aftermath of a literally bloody struggle, . . . the last fifteen pages turn everything that came before completely on its head. I sat there with my mouth open and I re-read that section several times. But somehow, it all works. Amazing.

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