- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

MIDNIGHT FUGUE
By Reginald Hill
Harper, $25.99, 368 pages

A DUTY TO THE DEAD
By Charles Todd
Morrow, $24.99, 336 pages
REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

In Reginald Hill’s Midnight Fugue (Harper, $25.99, 368 pages), the Fat Man is back in a melee of crime and political corruption that would have demolished anyone else still recuperating from being blown up by a bomb.

This latest chronicle of the crime-fighting exploits of Superintendent Andy Dalziel (aka the Fat Man) and his chief inspector Peter Pascoe hurtles along at a breakneck pace. Mr. Hill has crammed his pages with violent events and there is an over abundance of criminal riches to the point that even the Fat Man seems overwhelmed. After all, it’s out of character for him to collapse on a lady’s bed for an protracted afternoon nap after only two bottles of wine — and without the lady.

Dalziel is still convalescent after a long hospital stay, although clearly striving to achieve his previous levels of overkill in the drinking and eating field. But to his horror he is having trouble when he tries to work a highly complicated case on his own. To make matters worse, Pascoe, his loyal lieutenant, is demonstrating not only independence but a whiff of rebellion when he dares face down his chief’s volcanic irascibility. It should also be noted that Mr. Hill’s plotting, never distinguished by simplicity, is more chaotic than usual.

The launch point is the suspicion by one Gina Wolfe that her husband, a police officer who vanished seven years earlier while under investigation for corruption, has reappeared just in time to spoil her hopes of wedding yet another cop. That, however, is only the beginning of a muddle that involves Goldie Gidman, an evil and ambitious MP with a history of using a hammer as a means of persuasion, and his financial adviser Fleur Delay whose henchman is a retarded and sadistic brother who has a talent for assault and battery not to mention murder.

To keep things lively, there is a tabloid journalist hot on the scent of scandal, and there is the reappearance of the missing policeman who has returned to the scene of his disappearance despite the presence of a new partner and an infant. Nobody can accuse Mr. Hill of understatement, but he is saved as usual by a rollicking sense of humor personified in the mountainous body and ego of the Fat Man who manages to prove there is a lot of life in the old boy yet. After disposing of the cast of bad guys, he puts it succinctly, “There’s many a good fugue played on an old organ.” And it’s nice to have him back, not that anybody ever thought he would go away.

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The long dark shadow of World War I stretches across the writings of Charles Todd — who turns out to be part of a mother and son writing team — and haunts nearly all of the characters. Previous Todd books dealt with the troubles of a war veteran and detective tormented by the voice of the vengeful Highlander whom he shot.

This time around, in Duty to the Dead (Morrow, $24.99, 336 pages), the plot focuses on Elizabeth Crawford, a young nurse who has done her time tending the wounded in the trenches of France and emerged with a mission. Like most of the characters created by Mr. Todd, Elizabeth is serious-minded. She is the kind of young woman who doesn’t allow the broken arm she suffers when her hospital ship is torpedoed to weaken her determination to keep her promise to the dying Lt. Arthur Graham to take a message to his brother in England.

It should be noted that in addition to her nursing devotion, Elizabeth was also half in love with the lieutenant who died as a result of an amputated leg. Still semi-disabled, she arrives at the home of what may be the most dysfunctional family in England, individuals who are disinterested to the point of indifference when they are handed a message from the dead lieutenant reading, “Tell Jonathan I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.”

Neither Mary Graham, who is more of a monster than a mother, nor her son Jonathan, to whom the message from the dead was addressed, offers either reaction or response.

Mrs. Graham observes that “it’s rather a mystery” and she “doesn’t know what to make of it.”Jonathan, whose face is scarred by a war wound, assures Elizabeth that his brother’s last wishes will be “treated with respect” and adds that her sense of duty does her credit. But the mystery is just beginning to unravel. Elizabeth finds herself called upon to do emergency nursing of Peregrine, the fourth son who has been locked in an insane asylum for seven years for what his mother describes as a “cold blooded murder.”

When she has time to spare, Elizabeth is called in by the local doctor to help with a war veteran who dies a suspicious death. The plot deepens when she returns to London and discovers that the allegedly homicidal Peregrine has followed her there and is determined to hide out in her apartment until he can clear his name. The Graham family is embroiled in old and new killings, and Elizabeth has to summon all her courage and self-possession to disentangle the nightmare before she is posted back to France to cope with more victims of the war.

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