An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

An April Shroud
Reginald Hill, 1975, 256p.
Series: Dalziel & Pascoe #4
A couple of years ago, I was having a terrible time reading fiction. My mind was constantly flooded with thoughts about my job and other aspects of my life, and my brain seemed incapable of engaging with the sorts of books I really wanted to read. I wanted to read literary fiction with evocative language and challenging ideas, and I would exhaust myself in a few pages and find the words simply flowing past me, and my brain crunching on the details of my day.

The solution was series detective fiction, and the series was P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh novels. These books were full of small evocative language and small challenging ideas, cushioned with comfort and familiarity. The hero becomes familiar, the landscape becomes familiar, and the form of the story is familiar. They were indulgences without being indulgent, guilty pleasures without shame. Whenever I got discouraged with some more adventurous reading, the next Dalgliesh book could be summoned from the library and a joyful reprieve was at hand. Until, naturally, I ran out. There are only fourteen Dalgliesh books and my discipline with such things is poor.

There are 24 Dalziel & Pascoe books, and no more are forthcoming1, but this is my new go-to series for an invigorating indulgence. And this February required such an indulgence.

Ruling Passion, the previous novel in the series2, was mostly a showcase for Pascoe. Dalziel played a significant role, but we got very little internal view into him. An April Shroud opens at Pascoe and Ellie's wedding, with a precarious wedding toast from Dalziel. Pascoe heads off on honeymoon, and Dalziel conspicuously takes the opportunity for a holiday. He has lost his enthusiasm, and there is a hint of dismay at Pascoe's coupling. The April shroud here (from Keats3) is the melancholy that has fallen over Dalziel — and if you don't picture melancholy as something that Dalziel would entertain, you are in agreement with Dalziel.

The shroud is also the rain and flooding that immediately descends on Dalziel's holiday. After a very odd aquatic funeral procession, he finds himself stranded at the crumbling manor house of the Fieldings. Naturally, the circumstances of the death are questionable, and we feel confident that there will be additional bodies to follow in time. At least Hill inverts the Jessica Fletcher syndrome in this novel (as in the last) — the initial crime happens before the sleuth arrives, not after. More comedic and light than Ruling Passion, we have a dozen or so characters bouncing around to little particular end in this manor house. Too many, really, and Hill can't dedicate enough space to make even half of them interesting enough. In an on-duty mystery, the duo could knock on a door and question an old lady for a scene and we don't require a lot of commitment to the character. But in a bottle mystery like this, that old lady would hang around in the background, conspicuously uninvolved. Not that there are many old ladies in this bottle, but there are certainly two incidental sisters too many.

The Fieldings are an eccentric family, with eccentric hangers on. Some of it holds together reasonably well. The deceased's father is an aging famous poet, paranoid, irritable and tormented by the lack of opportunities his age affords him. An anarchist film-maker friend of the older son, is essentially squatting at the manor with his sister (yes, an incidental one.) But the matriarch of the family feels an oddly false fresh widow, and is an unlikely romantic leading woman to Dalziel's stupendously unlikely romantic leading man. To his credit, Dalziel finds the situation improbable too, and the potential that she is manipulating him hangs in the air.

That no one particularly seems upset by the initial death, nor the inevitable deaths that follow is remarked on but never explained. Embezzlement, theft, fraud, murder, pornography and prostitution all pop up in the walls of this manor, and in the end Dalziel never really gets a satisfying account. At least the deaths are presumed sorted out and murderers apprehended; Dalziel has his theories, but he is never really on the case, only tangled in it.

But the crimes and mysteries here are just background noise really. This is an outing for Dalziel, and all the interesting activities take place in his stout head. Hill unleashes him in the soggy countryside, gives him some self-doubt to work his way through with a romance and something close to a friend — the elderly poet stands in for Pascoe in a number of ways, but with the power structure and balance of gruffness shuffled about. And where Pascoe spent a lot of his solo time reflecting and comprehending, Dalziel spends his time being and hunching. Dalziel outside of his job is a much more likeable man, and I wished that Hill could have sent him on vacation without being forced to bring murder along for the ride.

This is an entertaining novel, but not a particularly good detective novel. The action is either offscreen or inexplicable and slapsticky. Half of the crimes either aren't crimes or aren't solved. Dalziel can't decide for most of the novel whether he should investigate seriously — and if he does investigate, how much he can keep from the on-duty police without losing conscience? As an outing with Dalziel, it gives us the series first deep look at his character, and it is worthwhile for that reason. Not that the writing isn't strong, nor is the atmosphere thin, but I have to admit that the plot is not strong, and the secondary characters thin too.


  1. Reginald Hill passed away last month at the age of 75.
  2. I previously reviewed Ruling Passion, number three in the series.
  3. The title is taken from Keats' Ode on Melancholy, though the inspiration took less of a framing role than in some of the earlier novels. Though perhaps I was simply less alert to it.

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