On Beulah Height
by Reginald Hill
Published by Doubleday
384 pages, 1998
Buy it online
Just two chapters into Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height I felt myself relax and settle in for a good read. It's one of those wonderfully sinewy books I've come to associate with the best modern British mystery writers -- a chilling whodunit, but filled with characters so contemporary and familiar that there's a risk you'll later recall one of their narratives as a story you heard from a friend.
On Beulah Height is the latest of more than a dozen works (novels and short stories) Hill has written about Yorkshire detectives Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, beginning with The Clubbable Woman (1970). Hill also writes somewhat lighter books following the investigations of private eye Joe Sixsmith (Killing the Lawyers, 1997).
On Beulah Height finds Dalziel and Pascoe heading up a search for Lorraine Dacre, a little girl who went out for a walk with her dog one cheery summer morning and vanished. Her disappearance sends a wave of panic through her small Yorkshire hometown of Danby, because it harks back to the disappearances of three other local girls 15 years earlier. Dalziel, who failed to solve those disappearances, is determined to find Lorraine.
In his trademark manner -- loud, aggressive, almost brutal -- Dalziel goes after the previous suspects: a mentally disturbed lad named Benny Lightfoot, who vanished during the first investigation, and a libidinous construction supervisor. And instincts keep bringing Dalziel back to Walter Wulfstan, a tightlipped, angry businessman whose daughter Mary was the last of the earlier victims.
Detective Pascoe has a daughter the same age as the missing Lorraine. But surprisingly, he has trouble keeping his mind on this investigation. He has a reputation as a sensitive, reflective man -- in most respects, Dalziel's opposite -- but ugly discoveries about his family's past (described in the 1996 Dalziel/Pascoe book Beyond the Wood) have left him bitter and angry. He's on the verge of quitting police work, and shows no interest as Dalziel attempts to brief him at one point on the long-gone Mary Wulfstan:
"It nigh pushed the father over the edge, losing her. He chucked all kinds of shit at us, threatened he'd sue for incompetence and such."
On Beulah Height's tone seesaws from spine-tingling to wry and back again. Author Hill quickly maps out a community scarred by loss. The previous disappearances of girls had occurred just as the town of Dendale, in the valley below the overlook known as Beulah Height, was preparing for death -- not of three children, but of the community itself. Moneyed developers were planning to flood the valley to create a reservoir. They carried out their project just weeks after the girls disappeared. So all traces of the missing children, and any clues to their fates, vanished underwater. The farming families of Dendale moved up to Danby, bringing with them grief and anger.
Dalziel and Pascoe arrive in Danby to find the community even more upset than they had imagined. Ominous graffiti proclaiming "Benny's Back" had been sprayed on the local railroad bridge -- the night before Lorraine Dacre vanished.
To make matters worse, Walter Wulfstan's daughter Elizabeth, a slim blond opera wunderkind, has arrived in Danby to perform Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, his songs for dead children. She won't let Lorraine's disappearance stop her. Ghoulish? Even more so when Dalziel realizes he has met Elizabeth before -- 15 years ago, when she was chubby, dark-haired Betsy Allgood, a farm child who was the last person to see Benny Lightfoot. She testified that she had been attacked by him when she went back to rescue her pet cat from the floodwaters consuming Dendale. Orphaned shortly after that flooding (her depressed mother and embittered father were both suicides), Betsy had been adopted by her uncle and aunt, the Wulfstans.
Those on whose minds the image was printed of a short, plump, plain child with cropped black hair gasped audibly at the sight of this tall, elegant woman with the erect carriage of a model, her slim body sheathed in an ankle-length gown, with long tresses of blond hair framing the face of a tragic queen.
The return of the death-obsessed diva is rich enough mystery in itself, but Hill is also writing a police procedural here, one in which Dalziel and Pascoe are nearly upstaged by their subordinates. Rookie patrolman Shirley Novello sees male chauvinism in every gesture of her colleagues -- and it's not entirely her imagination. Thus distracted and sabotaged, she nevertheless outshines her superiors when it comes to footwork. Novello's mentor is the sage, craggy veteran Sergeant Edgar Wield -- the gay partner of Danby's decidedly swishy rare-book dealer. As Novello observes, "when Dalziel spoke, you obeyed; when Pascoe spoke, you listened; when Wield spoke, you took notes."
Hill employs a writing technique in which the story is seen through the eyes of several characters, and viewpoint shifts frequently. The book begins with Allgood's childhood deposition to police, then moves to Pascoe's sunny suburban household, where Dalziel interrupts a family brunch. A chapter later, we're inside the head of little Lorraine as she hops out of bed early and heads out for that ill-fated walk with her dog. Before the book is over, we'll see the world through the eyes of more than a dozen people, including Pascoe's daughter Rosie, who has her own chilling brush with death:
Still far above her, but now clearly visible, she glimpses the tiny circle of blue sky. And as she looks, the blue sky becomes a frame round a familiar face and she hears a familiar voice crying her name.
A writer who shifts so easily between points of view risks leaving the reader feeling cheated: What would the little girl have seen, had we stayed with her just a minute longer? But Hill has chosen his characters carefully, given each a distinctive voice, and never cuts them short.
Like Michael Innes and Edmond Crispin before him, Hill is a confident and playful novelist who has no qualms about taking the reader through complex and sometimes esoteric social and physical landscapes. He gently lampoons aspiring writers such as Pascoe's wife ("Ellie Pascoe was ready for fame") and treats us to the details of deliberate mistranslations of German lieder. His descriptions of the flooding of Dendale might enthrall a civil engineer, while a connoisseur of regional dialects would relish the scenes in which the farm girl-turned-diva lapses into her childhood Yorkshire accent to sass Dalziel ("How do, Superintendent. You being tekken care of or have you just brok in?").
You can read On Beulah Height for the grim mystery tale, or for the hard-boiled cop story, or simply for the fine writing, and come away satisfied. I read it to get to know two of the most remarkable characters in contemporary crime fiction, Dalziel and Pascoe. And now I won't be replete until I've read the other dozen books and short stories that Hill's written about them. | November 1998
KAREN G. ANDERSON, editor of the Seattle-based magazine Northwest Health, writes frequently about crime fiction for January Magazine.
For more background on Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series, go to this brief essay at the Tangled Web UK website.