A title like Death’s Jest Book creates an expectation of something momentous. It must blend the tragedy of death and have enough humor thrown in to justify the mention of jest alongside death. Ordinarily this would be a daunting task for a writer, but then Reginald is anything but an ordinary writer. He rises to the challenge of the quixotic title and goes beyond. In other words, he does what he always does: he writes a fine crime novel.
The cast of characters includes the Yorkshire Policeman Peter Pascoe, who has falsely accused and in his own mind convicted ex-con Franny Roote, who is trying to educate herself out of her illegal past while joking about it. Much to Pascoe’s chagrin, Roote is out on the streets again. Despite her reputation for being a joker - or perhaps because of it - she begins odd and downright threatening letters that inexplicably share a connection to a poet-physician who lived in the nineteenth century. Pascoe is certain she is up to nefarious deeds, and he becomes obsessed with proving her guilt this time.
Edgar Wield, a colleague of Pascoe's, has played hero to a boy in danger. To reciprocate, the boy tells Wield about an upcoming pinch of fabulous treasure. This puts Wield in the hot seat of choosing whether to protect the boy of whom he is now fond or doing what he knows he should.
Then there is Constable Bowler, who is planning a rendezvous to celebrate the New Year with his dream woman. Sadly, her dreams are neither pleasant nor even merely unpleasant, but horrific.
Supposedly above it all in his lofty perch as Detective Superintendent, Andy Dalziel finds that being the boss is not always the best position to be in when it comes to unraveling the mess of Death’s Jest Book.
The characters seem so real that you feel you can converse with them. Hill is a master at scene-setting, so you can almost see what he describes. His ability with dialogue to convey emotions, pacing, and suspense is extraordinary. Death’s Jest Book is a joy to read - but after all, it is written by Reginald Hill.