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An April Shroud, by Reginald Hill

An April Shroud: Andy Dalziel in Love

Writers of series are often victims of their own success. They lay down the lines of their lead characters in the first book or two, and are then confined within those borders, not merely by rules of logic (“You said he had only two brothers”) but also because series readers can get very testy if a writer tries to change things up.

Reginald Hill, astonishingly, managed to escape the trap. With each book in the “Dalziel and Pascoe” series, he expanded both his characters’ characters and his own writerly paint-box. He said once that he had resolved early on to treat the series as a sort of scaffolding on which he could hang all the various kinds of novels he wanted to write – espionage, science fiction, historicals, etc. And it’s really with An April Shroud that this experiment began.

The first twist comes up front, with the focus on Andy Dalziel. Who on earth would make Dalziel a protagonist? He’s a rude, fat, balding bigot, hardly the kind of fellow with whom readers want to identify (and yet Hill’s talent is such that by the end of the book, you may well have changed your tune). Then there’s the setting: the classic English manor house, stuffed with a motley assortment of suspects- and victims-to-be. Who on earth would take that kind of setting, with its preciously crafted conventions, its dinner jackets and vicars and flighty ingénues, and set Andy Dalziel in the middle of things, the proverbial bull in a china shop?

Hill, apparently: With An April Shroud he created the improbable love-child of the traditional, Golden-Age country-house murder mystery and the tougher, edgier, more realistic cop drama (“police procedural” is the industry term) for which he was becoming known.

I use “love” advisedly, because onto this astonishing minotaur of a novel, Hill grafted a third genre: Romance. One could almost imagine Peter Pascoe as a romantic hero – young, fit, well educated — but instead, Hill sent Cupid to strike at Andy Dalziel’s aging, flabby heart. Dalziel! Who on earth would want to heave that bulk into bed? Ah, and yet again, by the end of the book, you may well have changed your tune. As a pure technical tour de force, An April Shroud is a marvel. But as a character study, a portrait of a man we thought we knew, it’s a joy. And it’s also – rather rare among mysteries – genuinely uplifting. If the dreadful, sweaty Andy Dalziel can find love, if he can command love from the reader, well then, perhaps even the sweatiest among us has grounds for hope.

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