The Magazine

No Mystery Here

Building the case for Reginald Hill.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In Hill's version, the events are largely the same, but the action moves to Yorkshire for the convenience of his continuing characters; modes of transportation, among other details, are updated; the sought-after healer is an alternative therapist rather than a surgeon; and the name of the seaside resort becomes Sandytown. Parker's sales pitch, no less fulsome, is adjusted to fit contemporary times:

We live in a sick world-a world suffering from some deep-rooted wasting disease-of which terrorism and [global] warming are but symptoms. To cure the whole we must start with smallest part, the individual! .  .  . Pure ozone-enriched air to cleanse the lungs-surging salty water to refresh the skin & stimulate the circulation-peace & quiet to restore the troubled spirit-

Hill's version begins with email messages from 22-year-old Charlotte (known as Charley) to her sister Cassie, a medical missionary in Africa. The missives are more detailed, intelligent, literate, and stylish than most such-how often do you come across the word "juvenated" in family correspondence?-but they have their quirks, shunning apostrophes and quotation marks and misapplying "ie" and "ei" in some words. Could these idiosyncrasies be clues to something or other, the reader may wonder? With the games-playing Hill, it's always possible.

Andy Dalziel is introduced as a patient in a Sandytown convalescent home, the Avalon Clinic, where he is recuperating from serious injuries suffered in his previous case, published in Britain as The Death of Dalziel and more accurately retitled for the American market, Death Comes for the Fat Man. (It came, but he rejected it.) As part of his therapy, Dalziel has reluctantly agreed to speak his thoughts into a digital recorder. For the remainder of the book, the narrative is divided among Charlotte's emails, Andy's oral diary, and Hill's customary elegant third person. Other characters from Austen are introduced, notably Lady Denham ("Every Neighbourhood should have a great Lady"), whose bizarre murder (she takes the place of a pig in a roasting basket revolving over a charcoal pit) provides a case for the Mid-Yorkshire CID, with Pascoe in charge but his invalid boss putting an oar in whenever possible.

Not all of the non police characters are drawn from Jane Austen: Back from the dead in a wheelchair is the charming rogue Franny Roote, whose long and complicated history with Pascoe began in the second book in the series, An Advancement of Learning (1971).

The nature of the crime justifies the title, taken from Austen's fragment. It occurs in a discussion of the possibility of local merchants raising their prices should Sanditon become a popular resort. Oddly, this is the second Hill novel in a row to have its British title changed. In the U.K. it is known as
A Cure for All Diseases, also from Austen and certainly an apt title for a murder mystery.

For all its ingenuity and readability, The Price of Butcher's Meat can't be counted among Hill's best strictly as a detective story, mainly because of an overcomplicated windup. But it is another exhibit in the case for Hill as one of the great crime writers, certainly among those currently active-and maybe all-time. He satisfies the demand of the current market for ever-increasing page counts, but achieves it with more matter, rather than the unconscionable padding of lesser writers, and he observes the more rigorous demands of real puzzle-spinning.

What better attributes for 21st-century crime fiction than contemporary sensibility, creation of deeply etched characters, keen ear for language, fine literary style, and respect for those often-scorned Golden Age conventions that make detective fiction a unique genre?

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.