Murder in midwinter

In our roundup of the season's best mysteries, a cracking new Dalziel-Pascoe yarn, echoes of a forgotten murder, S.J. Rozan's appealing private-eye duo, and the bleak brilliance of Ruth Rendell.

By Charles Taylor
Published December 10, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

"Death's Jest-Book"
By Reginald Hill
576 pages

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In Reginald Hill's 20th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery, there is no mystery -- at least for readers of the series. The identity of the Wordman, the serial killer whose murder was the subject of Hill's previous book, "Dialogues of the Dead," was revealed to readers at the end of that novel. "Death's Jest-Book" contains a subplot about the planned robbery of an exhibition of artifacts from England's past, but the real interest is the continued fallout from the Wordman case. Hill's readers already know that the cops never really caught the Wordman, who, in Hill's hands, is the most tormented and sympathetic of killers.

"Death's Jest-Book" also marks the reappearance of Franny Roote, an ex-con who drives the normally reasonable Peter Pascoe to distraction. Roote has been the focus of Pascoe's suspicion before, often to the cop's embarrassment. The copious long-winded letters Roote sends Pascoe here, all of them perhaps hinting at Roote's involvement in other murders, stoke the fires of that suspicion. Hill pulls off a neat turnaround. In "Dialogues of the Dead" Pascoe's obsession with Roote seemed a good cop's blind spot. Here, it's hard to understand why the letters he receives rouse the suspicion of no one else, neither his wife, Ellie, nor his partner, Andy Dalziel -- the "fat bastard," as he's called, not usually with warmth. Hill uses Roote's letters to pull the reader into Pascoe's obsession, leading us to an eventual understanding of the myopia of which even the best of men are capable.

Twenty novels into the series, nothing about "Death's Jest-Book" suggests that Hill is writing out of habit. It's an insult, particularly to a mystery writer, to say that his work is literate -- a novel, by definition, should be literate. But it may be necessary to use that descriptive to get at the high quality of Hill's writing. The ingenious "Dialogues of the Dead" featured the kind of mad wordplay that would set critics' superlatives flying had it appeared in a work of "serious" fiction. The fineness of Hill's writing is evident not just in the language itself but in the ease of his construction, the ease with which he cuts among his large cast of Yorkshire cops. Best of all is the poignancy of the burgeoning romance between D.C. Hat Bowler and the Rye Pomona, the librarian featured in "Dialogues of the Dead." The real tribute to mystery writers comes when you can say that you pick up their books to keep company with the cast of characters. Dalziel and Pascoe are nowhere close to wearing out their welcome.

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"The Distant Echo"
By Val McDermid
384 pages
St. Martin's Minotaur
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Val McDermid's new one-shot has the kind of premise that hooks you at once. Four college friends are walking home from a party late one night when they come upon a young girl who's been raped and stabbed. She dies before they can help her, and the friends find themselves under suspicion for her murder. The police never find evidence to charge the young men, but 25 years later someone starts killing them off.

"The Distant Echo" suggests that for McDermid the construction of mysteries has become effortless (or that she's good enough to make it appear that way). As is usual with her, the characters are remarkably vivid; the supporting characters, particularly the dead girl's family, are rendered with the sort of nuanced compression that short-story writers must envy.

But the real distinction of "The Distant Echo" is that it's a novel about the way the bonds of friendship are inevitably frayed as people pass from adolescence to adulthood. Writing from the point of view of men, McDermid is uncanny about how habits and personality traits that were once tolerated or looked on fondly now act as irritants, how people who were once inseparable drift away from each other and how they can never really cut those ties that bind. McDermid ends on a note of hope that she earns. What stays with you from "The Distant Echo" is its melancholy portrait of youthful camaraderie battered by experience. It's a terrific mystery and a novel whose sadness does not dissipate.

"Winter and Night"
By S.J. Rozan
400 pages
St. Martin's Minotaur
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I'm late coming to S.J. Rozan's mysteries, the latest of which, "Winter and Night," is already in paperback. Probably a lot of my readers have long been hip to what I've been missing. Rozan's novels are narrated by one or the other of her private investigator partners, Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. They're both residents of downtown Manhattan, Smith in a loft above a SoHo bar, Chin in the Chinatown apartment she shares with her mother. There is an easy relationship between the two, and a physical familiarity situated somewhere between the deep affection of friends and the tension of would-be lovers. Theirs is one of the most believable working relationships in contemporary fiction.

The subject of "Winter and Night," a Bill Smith novel, is school violence -- also the subject of Ian Rankin's "Question of Blood," which will be published in the United States in February. "Winter and Night" did not attract as much attention as Gus Van Sant's Columbine film "Elephant," but where the Van Sant film has the cooled-out voyeurism of the hippest art installation, Rozan's has the vital instincts of good, solid muckraking. The plot involves Bill's runaway nephew, the apparent murder of the boy's classmate, and the privileges accorded to jocks in high school society.

With the Long Island football camp rapes in the news, "Winter and Night" (written well before that event) is certainly relevant. But Rozan is above editorializing. "Winter and Night" takes you right back to every bit of high school bullying you ever experienced and connects it to the cant high schools put out about turning out good, solid citizens. Rozan gets at the rot of suburbia in "Winter and Night," but unlike nearly all the filmmakers and novelists who have addressed that subject from a superior height, Rozan isn't afraid to get her hands dirty.

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"The Babes in the Wood"
By Ruth Rendell
336 pages

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There's still a cozy image of mysteries as something to curl up with in front of a comfy fire. The fire would have to be an inferno to dispel the chill of Ruth Rendell's writing. Not that the subject of the 19th Inspector Wexford mystery, "The Babes in the Wood" (Rendell's 60th book overall) is all that scary. The chill Rendell imparts comes from the cold precision of her view of human nature. There's a throb of misanthropy in Rendell's writing, which is rational and considered and unsparing and has the feel of a consistent vision. Her skepticism about humanity never lapses into the showy barroom bitterness of bad hard-boiled writing.

In "The Babes in the Wood," two teenagers have disappeared along with the woman watching them while their parents are out of town. And it's typical of Rendell's chilliness that the grieving parents are presented mercilessly: The mother is a hysteric with only a tenuous grip on reality, and the father is a man whose main reaction to his children's disappearance is resentment at the time it takes away from his work. But they are not the only characters on whom Rendell's cold eye is cast. Icicles nearly hang off the prosperous middle-aged drunk who discovers one of the bodies of the missing and, at the behest of his model wife, keeps it to himself so as not to disturb their social schedule. There's also a fundamentalist cult who've given themselves forbidding Old Testament names and whose knowledge of God appears never to have been disturbed by the specter of love or forgiveness. The treatment of these dried-out Bible thumpers is a particular pleasure, given the contemporary tendency to invoke respecting the beliefs of others when speaking of even the looniest religious cult.

And then there's Wexford, the least affable of nearly all the recurring heroes of British detective fiction. He's an atheist still enamored of his wife, Dora, but clueless when it comes to what to get her for Christmas. He is frustrated with his oldest daughter, a woman whose foolishness impedes any love he feels for her.

For a book that has such disdain for fundamentalism, Rendell herself writes with something like the wrath of an Old Testament scourge, one whose fire and brimstone has been brought down to absolute zero. Floods threaten to engulf the countryside through much of the book (you can't get more biblical than that) and many of the characters make it seem as if the vengeance of nature would be a good idea.

It's hard to say why such a cold writer doesn't feel unpleasant or cheaply misanthropic to read. Some of it can be put down to Rendell's psychological acuity, but a great deal of what makes her a major novelist is her implicit moral vision. There's a principled disgust at work in her books, a disgust that expresses itself in reserved and piercing perception rather than outrage. She may not like what she sees, but you feel she has given it her full consideration. Another reason for the pleasure of reading Rendell may be less reputable -- there's a certain relief in admitting, for a couple hundred pages or so every year, that people are often appalling.

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"The Murder Room"
By P.D. James
432 pages
Alfred A. Knopf

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"Last Car to Elysian Fields: A Dave Robicheaux Novel"
By James Lee Burke
352 pages
Simon & Schuster

I've tried to focus this column on books I can recommend, but these two releases represent such a serious decline for two previously fine writers that I can't let them pass unmentioned.

After about 100 pages of P.D. James' latest Adam Dalgliesh mystery, "The Murder Room," I gave up. It wasn't so much that the mystery took that long to even get started, or James' plodding method of using each new chapter to introduce a character in the manner of a "well-made" stage play from the '40s. The problem with "The Murder Room" is that it's set in the present and no one and nothing in it feels like they have any connection with any recognizable part of contemporary life. There should be a place for writers and artists who feel out of step with the modern world, but that disjunction needs, at the least, to be acknowledged.

James can take credit for bringing a certain psychological realism to the British mystery, and her best books, "A Taste for Death" and "Devices and Desires," suggest not only a critique of the genre but of British life. In the midst, though, of the work being done by the likes of Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, John Harvey, Peter Robinson, Mark Bellingham, Stephen Booth and others, James' recent work feels like those literate, dead, stiff-upper-lip British movies of decades ago. There is perhaps no other way to read a sentence like this one, "From childhood the word London had conjured up for Tallulah Clutton a vision of a fabled city, a world of mystery and excitement," except as parody. Sadly, that's not how it's intended.

In James Lee Burke's "Last Car to Elysian Fields," his hero Dave Robicheaux has lost his wife to lupus, and his family home to a slipshod wiring job. And speaking for myself, Burke has lost at least one reader. The humorless moralism that was always present in Burke's writing has completely taken over the Robicheaux series. As heroes go, Robicheaux was always something of an uptight pain in the ass -- the kind of guy who'd chew you out if you said "damn" in his home. Here, he's tormented by his recent losses, but Burke endorses the mindset this leads him to.

With the disapproval you find in some reformed boozers, Robicheaux treats everyone with a drink in their hand as a potential alcoholic. Anyone lucky enough to have made money and enjoy even a moderately lavish lifestyle is sure to have done it by dirty means. Express any sexual desire outside of marriage and you're trafficking in human depravity. Halfway through "Last Car to Elysian Fields" you wonder if Robicheaux's prissiness isn't the setup for a plot twist that will reveal that the French Catholic heritage of New Orleans was invaded, generations ago, by Puritan pod people. That wouldn't be any more nuts than the plot elements Burke does introduce, like a porn producer who steals dialogue from a best-selling romance novelist in order to make his films more literate (!). You have to be operating in some parallel universe if you think the script is important in pornography. If you're looking for a sermon, I heartily recommend the latest Burke. All others beware.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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