In the mythology of British crime fiction, Superintendent Andy Dalziel is Zeus. Like Dalziel ("Dee-el"), Zeus may not be as psychologically interesting as his two divine brothers (take Rebus as earth-shaker Poseidon, Allan Banks, tenuously, as Hades, if you'll allow me to overextend this metaphor), but he is far and away the most fun, the most colourful, the most entertaining. Dalziel, politically incorrect, [very] large, and in charge of Mid-Yorkshire CID, feared lord of all he surveys, has been around for 34 years now, and in that time has helped his author get an Edgar nomination, a Gold Dagger, and a well-deserved Diamond Dagger. Dalziel is imposing, brusque, and hides a razor-sharp mind behind his jocular, vulgar image. And now, after the very disappointing Death's Jest Book, he (and Hill) are firmly, very firmly, back on top of their form. It's been wonderful to see that Hill's best work has all been written since that Diamond Dagger win: his books of late have all tested the boundaries, have all been completely different from anything else available. You get the sense that he feels his career has been validated, and now he can really get down to having some proper fun and games with his characters and his readers.
The plot is relatively straightforward at first sight, but soon, through varied familial infighting and some dark outside influences, shows its true complexity. In 1992, Pal Maciver's father Pal Maciver commits suicide in a locked room. He shoots himself at his desk with a shotgun, trigger pulled by toe. Open on the desk, a book of poems by Emily Dickinson (this is the source of the novel's title.) Ten years later, in the same house which now lies empty, Pal himself commits suicide in exactly the same way. The very same book of poetry is even open at exactly the same page.
In each instance angry fingers point toward Pal's stepmother, the enchanting Kay Kafka (as you can see, Hill's love of weird names is on fine display again. Here there is not only an Ethelbert, but a Cressida, and "Pal" is short for Palinurus,) whom he held much animosity towards. But as Peter Pascoe begins to investigate, merely to ascertain that everything truly is as it seems, he comes to find that Kay has a formidable ally in the large shape of his boss, Andy Dalziel. What is the true nature of their relationship? As Pascoe digs deeper, he'll learn that Pal's suicide has implications far beyond Yorkshire. And also that for some people the heart too is a locked room, and there it is always midnight.
Firstly, let me admit to pilfering that last sentence from the book jacket. I thought it was marvellous. Secondly, let me jump up and down with glee that Hill is back on track with this fantastic book, another of his wonderful gothic tragi-comedies basted in literary influence. There's everything here from Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson to Homer's Odyssey, and the great thing is that if you recognise these references the quality ascends ever-higher but if you don't it doesn't actually matter, so subtly and unobtrusively does he apply them. These novels, this one in particular, are very learned and intelligent, but they wear it so lightly that if Hill chooses they can be rather light-hearted, shading the real darkness beneath and the serious comments he is making. It's absolutely hilarious, too. Hill has a sparkling wit which makes the book bounce along and the reader react with a kind of elated joy. It's not at all overt humour, but it makes this the most amusing crime novels I'll read this year. Hell, maybe even in several years. When he's on his best sly form, as here, there isn't a "humorous crime novelist" who can top him. Not a one.
His prose is also a joy - a sublime pleasure. At first it may seem wordy, until you see that it's overwritten and flamboyant for humour, and it works very well. Anyone who still thinks his style is wordy is wrong - what you are witnessing is the English language being used to its fullest potential and its most wicked and yet joyful. It's incredibly refreshing in a literary land where sparsity is praised above all else. Today there exists a kind of wasting disease which means that the language is being stripped right to its bones in some novels, because people don't recognise that telling your story with as few words as possible and telling your story without using unnecessary ones are just not the same thing. The latter means good writing, whatever the instance; the first is just a style no more valid than any other. Hill is a very welcome antithesis: you can always count on him to provide a book with plenty of meat on its bones.
Some of the dialogue is rather colloquial, which may not suit some American readers I suppose, but it's not too hard to figure out and I certainly wouldn't let myself be put off by it. Dalziel is a marvellous character, Pascoe a great foil for him, and Hill's other wide cast are great fun too. Good Morning, Midnight is a tremendously entertaining book that seems intent on hiding its seriousness, as well as an exemplary crime novel. All in all, the emperor has definitely put his clothes back on.