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There have been complaints from the local residents about the Calliope Club, a private cinema that shows pornographic films, so the local police in the person of Sergeant Wield are already keeping an eye on it. However, everything is perfectly legal and the only disruption the club is causing is to the respectable sensibilities of its neighbours. But Jack Shorter, one of the club members, is worried, and since he happens to be Inspector Peter Pascoe’s dentist, he takes the opportunity to pass on his concerns. He tells Peter that in one scene of a film, in which the naked heroine is being beaten up her equally naked captor, he is convinced that the beating is real and that the woman has been seriously hurt, if not worse. So Peter goes along to see for himself, starting a chain of events that will uncover some dark secrets around the town and lead to murder…
By the time of this fifth Dalziel and Pascoe book, both of the main characters have become much more fully developed, although they will continue to evolve throughout the long-running series. Dalziel is brash, crude and often uncouth, although he’s perfectly capable of presenting different faces when he wishes. He knows everyone who’s anyone around his patch, and is well tuned in to all the gossip and secrets of his fellow townspeople. Pascoe is educated and cultured, more empathetic and often deeply affected by the things he witnesses as part of his job. He is the modern face of policing, although that modernity of 1978 when the book was first published seems very out-dated now, especially in social attitudes. Because this story involves porn, violence towards women and what would now be considered child exploitation at best, or child abuse at worst, those outdated attitudes make for uneasy reading to modern eyes. If you find it difficult to allow for different times, then this may not be the best book in which to meet Dalziel and Pascoe for the first time.
However, if you can look past that, then there’s a strong plot here – tighter and better paced than in some of the earliest books. The storyline is undoubtedly dark, but there’s plenty of room for some humour in the interaction between the two leads. Hill tended to change the main viewpoint from book to book, and here we see the story from Peter’s perspective, which is a kinder and gentler one than Dalziel’s. The starting point of the story – the suggestion of ‘snuff’ movies, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real – soon veers off to become more domestic in nature, as Jack Shorter is suddenly accused of seducing one of his underage patients. Meantime, the owner of the Calliope Club is attacked and left to die, and Peter must try to find out if there’s a connection to his investigation into the possible snuff movie. With all the concentration on porn, there are some salacious moments and some earthy language but no graphic descriptions of sex, on or off screen.
As the series progressed, the books gradually widened out from the two main detectives to become more ensemble pieces with several recurring characters. That process is beginning in this one, as we get to know Ellie, Peter’s wife, a little better. She’s a feminist and what we would now call a social justice warrior, so there’s always tension between Peter and her over his job, since she sees the police as a reactionary pillar of a patriarchal society. Sergeant Wield is also coming to the fore, although at this early point in the series, he is almost unrecognisable as the complex and appealing character he will later become.
Going back and reading these books in order has made me realise just how much the characters developed and changed over time – a reflection, I suspect, of Hill’s own development as well as of the changes in society during the decades in which he was writing. It’s quite hard to realise it now, but in fact at the time these books were at the forefront of the social changes, with Hill addressing subjects like feminism and homosexuality at a time when they were rare indeed in crime fiction. The way he does it sometimes seems clumsy to us now, with our heightened sensitivity and demand for strict adherence to the rules of liberal political correctness, but the underlying messages are positive ones for those who can see past the blunter style of expression of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pascoe is already learning to be more sensitive, partly through Ellie’s influence, and later in the series even Andy Dalziel will show he’s not as dinosaurish as he likes to appear.
While there are still a few books to go before Hill hit his peak, this one feels to me like a bit of a turning point, with indications of how the series would later develop, especially in the characterisation. As always, this series is highly recommended!