Book review: Alimentary, my dear Watson

Yorkshire fare and Venetian greed: The latest crime novels reviewed by Ian Ousby
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The Independent Culture
CRIME AND mystery readers know perfectly well that, like old soldiers, old series never die: they just fade away. Anyone searching for an exception to this depressing rule could do no better than take a look at Reginald Hill's latest book, On Beulah Height (HarperCollins pounds 16.99). Can it really be the 16th he has written about Dalziel and Pascoe? Can it really be almost 30 years since he introduced us, in A Clubbable Woman, to a couple of characters as gloriously mismatched as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or (whisper their names with respect) Holmes and Watson?

Age certainly has not withered Dalziel and Pascoe, nor custom staled their infinite variety. There may be nothing new Hill can show us about them - Pascoe remains forever the embodiment of liberal decency and Dalziel the embodiment of varicose-veined political incorrectness - but there is still a good deal of pleasure to be had from revisiting them in the spirit we might revisit familiar and well-loved landmarks. Nor does Hill make the mistake of skimping on all the other aspects of the novelist's task, as so many other crime writers whose series have hit double figures do. No corner-cutting for him. He plots On Beulah Height at a pace that is leisurely but never slack. The twists and turns of the story are slow to come but, when they do, they ensnare the reader with casual authority - nowhere more so than in the deft use of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder as a leitmotif to the mystery.

From the start, the characters of Dalziel and Pascoe had a solidity about them partly because the setting they inhabited was so solidly realised. Hill's sense of place has, if anything, grown stronger with the years; he remains Yorkshire's Old Reliable. Donna Leon's seventh novel about Commissario Brunetti goes a long way to confirming her claim to have taken literary possession of Venice - and indeed a large tract of contemporary Italy - in a similar fashion. So far her achievement has not been greeted with the fanfare of praise Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels instantly attracted, if only because there is nothing self-advertising about her virtues. Her style is unostentatiously clear, moving the story briskly along yet finding time to pause on the evocative detail. She may linger rather too long over the food her characters eat, but that is an easy sin to commit when writing about Italy and an easy one to forgive. Otherwise, she resists the temptation to wallow in contrived atmosphere or show off local knowledge that afflicts so many recent Eurothrillers. A Noble Radiance (Heinemann pounds 15.99) finds her at the height of her power. It gives readers a delightful foretaste of summer holidays to come, but it also offers much more than that. In its modest way it does an excellent job of dissecting the intricate relations between private honour and public corruption, between passion and indifference, which go to make up Italian life.

Wings of Fire (Headline pounds 17.99) is Charles Todd's second novel about Inspector Ian Rutledge, a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War testing his shattered self-confidence on his return to police work. Todd is an American but he has a good grasp of his English setting, even if occasional usages like "green beans on the side" and "barkeep" jar the ear, just as the spelling "whiskey" jars the eye. The period detail is mastered and conveyed in a refreshingly unfussy way (though I wonder if in 1919 it would have been as easy to get strong black coffee in a country pub as Todd imagines). Rutledge's habit of privately communing with the voice of a dead comrade, executed by firing squad, looks as if it might soon grow tedious but in fact proves an effective device for letting the reader share the detective's thoughts. So there is a lot to admire in the book. In fact there is almost everything to admire except the way it goes about propounding and unravelling a mystery. The mystery is routine something-nasty-in-the-woodshed stuff about a Cornish family, the unravelling consists largely of extremely long conversations which nevertheless always manage to be interrupted at the critical moment, and the police procedure would have raised eyebrows even in the more relaxed climate of 80 years ago. Todd remains a writer to be watched, but his series has a long way to go before it achieves the strengths that Reginald Hill and Donna Leon

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