Harriet Waugh

Closely related deaths

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Good Morning, Midnight

Reginald Hill

HarperCollins, pp. 407, £

Good Morning, Midnight is an excellent novel by that mistress of introspective sensitivity, Jean Rhys. Reginald Hill hijacks the title for his far less morbid new detective novel starring that trinity of beings, Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel, Detective Inspector Peter Pascoe and Sergeant Wield. Good Morning, Midnight is, however, definitely Pascoe’s case. Dalziel plays an entirely subsidiary role displaying bellicose discomfiture as Peter attempts to wrongfoot him and prove that a clear case of suicide is murder. We know that it is suicide because we witness antique dealer Pal Maciver killing himself.

The novel is set a few weeks after the denouement of Reginald Hill’s previous novel, Death’s Jest-Book. It opens with a suicide straight out of John Dickson Carr (a 1930s novelist, the Houdini of crime fiction, who specialised in corpses found in rooms with no access from the outside). In this, however, we see Pal Maciver setting the scene of a suicide in a locked room but doing it in such a way that if one were to look for murder in a locked room one would, if very clever, find it. He also places his hated stepmother in the house within minutes of his death. Peter is, of course, very clever, but even though he suspects murder, he hardly has to prove anything very much as different characters unroll a sometimes contradictory narrative in a series of tapes and statements.

What makes Pascoe suspicious of Pal Maciver’s suicide is that it is an exact replica of Pal’s father’s suicide some ten years earlier. Both locked themselves into the study of the same family home. Both shot themselves in the head at the desk using their toe to pull a string attached to the trigger of the shotgun. Both left the same book open at the same poem. Neither of them left a note. Both times Dalziel arrives on the scene and tries to bulldoze through instant closure on the deaths. Why? It is that ‘why’ that gets Peter digging into the death of Pal Maciver’s father. And then there is the even bigger ‘why’. Why did Pal Maciver imitate his father’s suicide? Could it be because he believed it was murder and was demonstrating through his death how it might have occurred? Would anyone kill himself for such a reason? And if Daddy was killed who killed him?

While the novel remains a domestic crime story it works extremely well. At the heart of the dysfunctional family is Kay Kafka, the much hated American stepmother of Pal and his sister Cressida. Kay, who comes with a history, is beautiful, possibly sexually voracious, intelligent and enigmatic. She marries their father Palinurus Senior, who owned a large machine-tool business bought up by the American company she worked for soon after their mother’s death. She forges an enduring love with the youngest child, Helen, despite the efforts of the older siblings. Pal, a handsome teenager at the time of the marriage, accuses her of attempted sexual abuse and considers her responsible for his father’s death. Shortly after being locked out of the family home by her stepchildren she marries her American boss, taking Helen to live with her.

There is quite enough emotional intrigue here to satisfy most readers, but then a new strand, of spooks and criminal business types, is introduced These come in all shapes and nationalities but seem to inhabit the stylised, surreal world of the Seventies television series The Avengers. It is a bit strange finding their like popping up in the next century.