- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

It takes 162 pages to get to the first murder in this monster of a mystery and it says a lot for the author that it’s worth it.

“The thing being roasted in the slowly revolving basket was the corpse of Daphne Denham,” is how Reginald Hill plunges into the first violent death in The Price of Butcher’s Meat (Harper Collins, $26.95, 528 pages) a book of black mischief and mayhem.

However, it doesn’t detract from the sizzling (sorry!) scene that the lady has been strangled before being barbecued, because her death unleashes the skills of the inimitable detecting duo of Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe on one of their more uproarious crime chases. It adds to the bizarre situation that Dalziel, otherwise known as “the Fat Man” is still recuperating from a narrow escape from death in a bomb explosion.

Dalziel is convalescent to the point that he is resentful that his partner Pascoe is not only following in his footsteps but increasingly filling his shoes as an investigator. Pascoe was his pupil and while Dalziel is proud of him, he is determined to maintain his seniority in the team. The increasing competition between the pair and the growing self-confidence of Pascoe gives a nice spice to the plot that was missing in previous Dalziel-Pascoe mysteries.

Mr. Hill’s decision to tell his story in a series of e-mails and recollections by various characters is successful once the book takes off, despite the exasperatingly illiterate style of an e-mailer who learns better than to take on the Fat Man. Yet it all sets the scene for the lifestyle of the murder victim, an unpopular member of the seaside town where she preens herself as social arbiter. The population of Sandytown ranges from socially upscale to downright peculiar, from an acupuncturist who is a mixture of Yorkshire and China, to a bisexual baronet who likes skinny dipping and a mysterious cripple with a criminal past whose reappearance alarms both Dalziel and Pasco.

This might be classified as less a murder mystery than a murder romp, with Mr. Hill leading his readers through his usual maze of clues, embellished by Dalziel’s unlikely romantic encounters in which he indulges with lewd gusto despite his ostensibly exhausted state of recovery. Of course, Dalziel and Pascoe solve the murders and disentangle the bizarre goings-on in the idyllic English seaside town that calls itself, “Sandytown, Home of the Healthy Holiday.” Dalziel winds up on the final page by casting a jaundiced eye at the local sign and observing that, in view of what had taken place there, it was enough to make him take up smoking again.

Clearly, the Fat Man is back in form.

•••


Sylvie is a pretty 4-year-old who is terrified of water, addresses her mother only by her first name and is obsessed by a photograph of an Irish seaside town called Coldharbor.

Asked why the picture of Coldharbor is so special, Sylvie matter of factly tells her mother, “I lived there, Grace. Before.”

It is the dark memory encapsuled in the word “before” that haunts Margaret Leroy’s Yes, My Darling Daughter (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25, 352 pages), a poignant ghost story about a little girl who remembers another life and tortures her frantic mother by hinting at the dangers it still holds. Ms. Leroy is an evocative writer who expertly conjures up the cloud of fear enveloping a mother struggling to reach her child and realizing that she is trying to understand the incomprehensible. As Grace comes to accept that she is dealing with a shadow child weeping for a past existence, she reaches a decision to confront the specters that stalk Sylvie’s mind by taking her to Coldharbor, where lies the root of the terror. Ironically, Sylvie proves to be on a rescue mission, and she moves with uncanny agility to deal with a threat that proves more material than spiritual.

Most significant is that when Sylvie has achieved personal peace, she calls Grace “Mum” for the first time. Ms. Leroy has written a memorable vignette.

•••


Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal (Felony & Mayhem, $14.95, 320 pages) is a doom-laden study of the lost and the lonely, of warped relationships and their inexorable collapse into disaster.

There is a painfully vivid account of a wife consumed with rage and vengeance over her husband’s infidelity, a husband who discovers too late the danger of demanding what you think you want and a deranged young man who devotes himself to the care of a woman he has reduced to a vegetable.

It is a book of detailed and unrelieved gloom written so unemotionally as to be clinical in its approach to the human tragedy it recounts. It moves through gathering darkness to death and while Ms. Alvtegen demonstrates the writing capacity to capture the misery of her almost uniformly unsympathetic characters, she shows no pity.

She leaves her reader in no doubt that things can only get worse for those of whom she writes. Yet there is no glimpse of compassionate judgment for those whose mundane lives have collapsed under the weight of anger and anxiety exacerbated by a deranged mind. There is never a suggestion that compromise embedded in common sense might be considered as an alternative to destruction. Her bitterly ironic denouement piles on the agony. Not a book for a day when you aren’t feeling cheerful.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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