Friday, July 19, 2013

The Grandest Game in the World

Okay, here’s the situation: some crazed maniac is out there killing people left and right. With victims dropping like dead flies, the murderer leaves taunting messages for the police in the form of a crazed “dialogue”, chock-full of riddles, puns, and clues to the next victim. The press has gone insane over the story and have dubbed this lunatic “the Wordman”, and the chase is on. Sounds just like a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, doesn’t it?

But surprisingly enough, this is the plot summary for Dialogues of the Dead by Reginald Hill, a book that was published in 2002. In this book, Hill’s regular detectives (Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe) find themselves duelling against the Wordman, a killer who writes stories about his murders after the fact and submits them to a short story competition.

Throughout the book, Reginald Hill puts a major emphasis on games, especially word games. The entire book proudly follows the tradition of “The Grandest Game in the World”. You will find all sorts of games scattered throughout the book, such as the Wordman’s cryptic letters and a brilliant dying message clue. I discovered, to my shock, that as an author you’re actually allowed to have fun in a modern crime novel, all while spinning a complex plot, developing characters, and planting clues all over the place, clearly pointing out the killer to the perceptive reader. However, it will be a very perceptive reader who solves the case before Hill gives you the answer in a final chapter that is darkly humourous. It’s one of the most interesting solutions I’ve come across, not only for the solution but for the manner in which it is explained.

Simply put, Dialogues of the Dead is one of the best recent detective stories I’ve ever read. For ingenuity, the only equivalent I can think of is Paul Halter’s The One-Eyed Tiger (a dazzlingly complex locked-room mystery). But not only is it ingenious, Dialogues of the Dead is brilliantly written. The style is clear and level-headed, and although Hill makes some interesting observations about the world, he never allows philosophical meandering to overtake the plot. The plot is the focus of this one, and although he develops his characters – a young policeman’s romance, for instance, is delightfully written – the hunt for the Wordman takes precedence.

I dare not reveal more about the plot, but I will say that the solution was wonderful. It definitely took me aback; the plot’s complexity is such that few readers will anticipate the ending. It’s refreshing to see this in such a recent novel, and I only hope I can find more like this. If you’re a fan of the Golden Age, you will love this book, and if you’ve never read a book by Reginald Hill, this is a fine place to start. This is undoubtedly a modern masterpiece of detective fiction. Read it and see for yourself.


  1. This book sounds really good. I'll have to track down a copy somewhere, since you've got me interested now. Interestingly, from your review it seems as though the book is in part based on the real life Zodiac Killer. Even the cover art seems to go so far as to give that impression.

    Nevertheless, I hope to be able to read this book soon.

  2. I'm a huge fan of Hill's books, both with and without Dalziel and Pascoe - he was a literate writer who cast his net pretty wide and nearly always hit his mark. i have been saving this one up - glad to hear it lives up to its reputation!

  3. When Hill got it right he was brilliant. Sadly, towards the end of his career, his novels were sometimes bloated and flashy -- full of literary pyrotechnics simply to show off (so it seems). The Woodcutter is a good (i.e. bad) example of that, with chapters written in every tense known to humanity. Dialogues of the Dead, which I haven't yet read, sounds much better. Another one for me to seek out!

  4. I completely agree with this. I love Hill's earlier work but the later ones that I've read seemed to be too far from the traditional crime thriller for my personal taste. This one however, is simply outstanding. A work of genius and a great mystery. Oh, and it has one of my favourite ever explanations as to why the killer did... something. A great book.

  5. Glad you liked, Patrick. I think this was about the time he peaked. After this he seemed to be writing for himself much more than his readers--of course he earned the privilege!