Arms and the Women
by Reginald Hill
Published by Delacorte Press
408 pages, 1999
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Reginald Hill writes crime fiction that is both grittily down-to-earth and dauntingly erudite. His reach never exceeds his formidable grasp, but his latest book, Arms and the Women (subtitled An Elliad), demands that his readers work to keep up. Fortunately, your effort is rewarded. Arms and the Women is an excitingly ambitious variation on the mystery genre.
Arms crowns Hill's acclaimed series of books and short stories about Yorkshire Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel (pronounced Dee-YELL) and Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe. Despite its militant-sounding title, this new novel is less about a war between the sexes than it is about cross-gender skirmishes occurring in peacetime. The tale brings to centerstage Pascoe's wife Ellie, a former campus radical who is now uneasily juggling her conflicting roles as a policeman's wife, an aspiring novelist and the mother of a little girl named Rosie.
My editor sent back an earlier version of this review with the request that I make it "a bit more linear" and give some hint of the book's plot early on. Ironically, those were the exact same frustrations I had with the novel itself. So, I'll take you right to Chapter 2, in which Hill's crime fiction plot sets forth under full sail. In a scene of domestic terror that is at once chilling and hilarious, Ellie fights off a pair of would-be kidnappers in her garden. Dalziel arrives to debrief the near-hysterical Ellie, and the exchange between them dispels any lingering doubts you might have harbored about the big heart inside of this ale-fueled, fire-breathing investigative dragon:
"By God," said Dalziel after the sergeant had gone. "Was that a smile, or has he got toothache? Nearest yon bugger ever came to cracking his face at me was the time I fell into the swimming pool at the mayor's reception. Oh aye. I see you remember that too."
Not that Dalziel would ever let his comforting bedside manner get in the way of a skillful police interview. Inquiring further about her fight, he asks Ellie:
"How hard did you say you kneed him?"
The action in Arms takes place just a few weeks after little Rosie Pascoe's brush with death (described in On Beulah Height, 1998), which has left her parents badly shaken. Ellie is pondering life's meaning and her own identity as a woman, a mother and a writer. She has found unexpected comfort in secretly penning a strange, ribald sequel to the ancient Greek poet Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Ellie's wily, battle-scared Odysseus bears a startling resemblance to her husband's boss, the crude but colorful Dalziel.
Her secret work (which Hill playfully refers to as the Elliad in Arms' subtitle) is only one of many striking narrative voices and viewpoints Hill releases in the book, Siren-like, to dazzle our ears and confuse our minds. He has used hints of this technique before. In his haunting The Wood Beyond (1996), old letters and journals revealed the long-hidden secrets of Pascoe's family. In On Beulah Height, one of Rosie's favorite children's books and a cycle of Mahler's songs about dead children underscored the novel's morbid plot.
In this new story, Hill allows the many voices to take control, shifting narrators every few pages. In the prologue to Arms, we hear Ellie musing about her father's descent into senility; we read a letter to "Mistress Pascoe," written in Shakespearean English; there is an omniscient account of a murderous drug deal in Central America; and then Peter Pascoe relates an encounter with a bewitchingly beautiful woman in the chaotic aftermath of a highway accident. This prologue ends with a short verse about war between the sexes, its sassy rhymed couplets echoing the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope's parody of Homer, The Dunciad. Whew! On to Chapter 1, which consists solely of the incantations of Sibyl, a mysterious narrator privy to the details of Ellie's life. Like the ancient Greek prophetess Sibyl, who was given the gift of eternal life without eternal youth and ended up living in an earthenware pot hung from the ceiling of a cave, Hill's modern Sibyl is all-knowing but powerless.
If all this sounds like a bit too much, too soon, it is. When authors of police procedurals start decking out their stories with characters from the classics, hints of the supernatural and plot twists borrowed from international thrillers, it's usually advisable for the reader to run, screaming, away from those dark streets. I had to mentally lash myself to the mast with memories of the glories of past Dalziel/Pascoe stories to keep from bailing out of Arms at the beginning.
But once the attempt to abduct Ellie occurs, the plot galvanizes around the questions of who is after her, and why. Pascoe and Dalziel suspect a recently released felon, a college student convicted as an accessory in the murder of an administrator at the school where Ellie had been teaching. But their theory is upset when Ellie's best friend, Daphne Aldermann, is attacked by a strange man she spotted watching the Pascoe's house from his car.
Young patrolwoman Shirley Novello has her own suspicions about who is stalking her boss' wife, and amuses Dalziel by checking up on Serafina "Feenie" Macallum, an aging radical who has been trying to guilt-trip Ellie and other local feminists into providing support for foreign political prisoners. Novello's investigations are hampered at critical moments by Ellie herself, who clings bitchily to the belief that Novello must have the hots for Inspector Pascoe. Admittedly, the buff policewoman doesn't go much out of her way to smooth the older woman's feathers. Novello reflects smugly:
Not that her own husband, if she ever bothered, would be anything like Chief Inspector Pascoe. It would probably be a comfort to Ellie Pascoe to know that her [Novello's] fantasies featured chunky, hairy men on surf-pounded beaches, not slim, nice-mannered introverts who would feel it necessary to buy you a decent French meal before checking into a good four-star hotel. But it was not a comfort she was about to offer.
Author Hill shows himself to be disquietingly good at getting inside women's minds, and not only those of Shirley Novello and Ellie Pascoe. As a result, while Arms may not show women in their best lights, it certainly celebrates their diversity, depths and strengths. Hill's vibrant female characters include Feenie Macallum, who we discover was once a legendary freedom fighter -- though she has now become the sort of frustrated left-winger who professes to care about "the people," while seeming to care mostly about herself. As Novello suspects, Feenie knows why people are after Ellie, but has her own painful reasons for keeping it a secret.
Feenie's near-opposite is Ellie's friend Daphne, who Hill initially presents as a wealthy and serene Martha Stewart-type. Daphne takes Ellie and Rosie to hide away in her quaintly ramshackle cottage on the Yorkshire coast -- just down the road from Feenie's crumbling ancestral estate. The disparate narrators and plot elements come together at a dinner party Feenie hosts at her estate for all of the women -- Ellie, Daphne and bodyguard Shirley Novello, as well as a deceptively bland feminist follower of Feenie's. But the unexpectedly enjoyable evening is shattered when Central American thugs (the same ones whose drug deal was described in the prologue) break in and hold the women at gunpoint. Daphne astonishes everyone by erupting in an outburst of defiance. Ellie's initial delight at her friend's courage turns into dismay:
Grovel! she urged her friend mentally. Whatever he says, agree. Beg for mercy. It's only in very old and very out-of-date children's books that a show of British pluck can shame a foreign villain into reluctant admiration. Nowadays, they just blow you away.
The hostage scene on Feenie's estate builds to a rousing conclusion amidst a raging coastal storm (hints of the Odyssey, again), with two groups of men (opposing factions of thugs and terrorists) attempting to subdue the women, another two groups of men (conflicting teams of police investigators) attempting to rescue the women, and the women admirably rescuing themselves. By the time all the loose ends and missing people are accounted for, you feel exhilarated, exhausted and with your thoughts gently re-arranged. The reason behind Ellie's attempted kidnapping, when finally revealed, seems somehow beside the point. Hill appears to be saying that while small mysteries can be solved, the larger ones can only be explored and admired.
As Ellie muses about her own writing at the end of Arms:
I'd set out to do a bit of gentle piss-taking, to portray these men, these heroes, and their epic pretensions, their crazy notions of duty and courage and honor, their absurd rivalries and their loyalties equally absurd, as essentially laughable.
Like Odysseus, Hill has hidden himself among the women and lived to tell the tale -- or to let them tell it in their own voices. We are the richer for it. | November 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.
To learn more about Reginald Hill and his books, go to the author's Web site.