Hill, Reginald. Death’s Jest-Book.

NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

I’ve always preferred to read my way through an extended series of mystery novels in chronological order, because each new case generally builds on those that came before and the characters develop in the same way. Some readers jump around within a series and seem none the worse for it — but that’s really not an option here. This volume follows hard on the heels of its immediate predecessor, Dialogues of the Dead, and actually continues the plotline. The two books together are nearly 1,000 pages and you should think of them as a single fat novel.

The hunt for the serial killer in Mid-Yorkshire known to the press as the “Wordman” has ended with the death of the presumed culprit in a bloody hand-to-hand struggle with a young detective. The injured are recovering, the nightmares of those threatened are fading, and the principals in the case are beginning to regain their equilibrium. Another rumored crime-in-the-planning is beginning to take up Superintendent Dalziel’s time, what seems to be the intended heist of an armored car, and he’s got his team chasing leads to try to discover what’s going to happen before it actually does.

But DCI Peter Pascoe, a first-rate cop whose personality and style are diametrically opposite those of his ursine boss, has his own problems. For years he’s been trying to get the goods on Franny Roote, whom he once sent to prison for involvement in a murder, but who is now out and seemingly involved in some way with several of the victims in the Wordman case. And the thickness of this book is partly explained by the series of letters the apparently penitent Roote is writing to Pascoe, describing his life behind bars and the methods by which he is now trying to scale the heights of academe. Pascoe is convinced that the admittedly brilliant and exceeding subtle Roote is taking the piss, showing off his abilities and daring anyone to try to pin anything on him. Of course, no one believes any of that except Pascoe himself, and his obsession is becoming an annoyance not only to his colleagues on the force but to his wife.

The true identity of the Wordman was revealed at the very end of the previous book, but anything I might say about that would be a spoiler, so I’ll say only that the theme of this one is not death so much as loss. And several of the continuing characters will suffer greatly. Hill has shown himself to be a master of style and I find his literary aspirations to be reminiscent of Elizabeth George. He has an ability to shift gears between narrative points of view that is quite remarkable.

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