October 21, 2002

Arms and the Women, by Reginald Hill

OK, now I'm impressed. While I liked it, I compared Hill's book A Pinch of Snuff somewhat unfavorably with Peter Lovesey's work. Having read this later book in Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe series, I still think the comparison is apt, but no longer unequal. Arms and the Women is as good as any of the Lovesey books I've read, and still feels somewhat similar in style. As with the later Peter Diamond book, the main characters have mellowed somewhat.

Arms and the Women is less a murder mystery than a thriller. It begins very confusingly: there's a cache of illegal guns, and a shoot-out, and the who's and why's remain murky until much later in the book. Then there's an extended internal monologue by a character whom I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to recognize or not, before good ol' Pascoe appears. (There's a twenty-one year gap between this book and the previous one in calendar years, and at least six to eight in internal years, and it's not clear how much has happened in the mean time; it makes it hard to know who the players are.) Once it gets rolling, though, it cooks right along.

The heart of the book (it would merit publication on its own) is an extended narrative written by Pascoe's wife, Ellie. She's an aspiring novelist, and is in fact waiting to hear from a publisher about a manuscript she sent in. It had come back the previous time with some encouraging comments, and so she reworks it and polishes it, and sends it in again--and then finds herself completely unable to work on anything serious while she was waiting. So she starts writing a tale, for her eyes only, about a meeting between Odysseus and Aeneas on Calpyso's isle. Aeneas is there with his army. He's not gotten to Carthage yet, but he's clearly a man of destiny, and it's clear to everyone, including himself, that he's going to make it to Italy and found Rome. Odysseus, just as tricksy as you'd expect him to be, is just trying to get home. It's a lovely, funny little creation, and worth the price of admittance.

Meanwhile, Columbian gun runners are closing in on the cache of weapons--where so ever it is--and a government spook named Gawain Sempernel is closing in (so we are led to understand, by hint and by whisper) on the gun runners. And closing in as well on their English confederates, one of whom just might be Ellie Pascoe. She might actually be innocent, but it's clear Gawain doesn't much care; this is his last operation and if she stands between him and a comfortable retirement, she's expendable.

I don't want to give any more away, but I will say that Hill shows the same restraint that Lovesey shows in The Vault--he lets the narrative speak for itself. He doesn't explain all the jokes at the end; he assumes that we're smart enough to notice them and appreciate them without his help.

I'll definitely be looking for more from Mr. Hill.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 21, 2002 04:58 PM