Saturday, May 07, 2011

Joe Sixsmith Needs More Sympathy

Hill, Reginald. Blood Sympathy. Harper, 2010 (1996)

Would-be private detective Joe Sixsmith, the protagonist of Reginald Hill's novel Blood Sympathy (which I gather is from a much larger series) is described in some professional-grade reviews as "an unlikely hero," a portrayal only enhanced by the description on the back cover of the edition I read (a pink British reprint) in which the marketing director enquires, "PI can mean many things, but can it really mean a balding, middle-aged redundant lathe operator from a high rise in Luton?"

It may be dangerous to allow one's audience the freedom to answer (although the blurb continues with one possible answer: "Joe Sixsmith thinks it can. His Aunt Mirabelle thinks you’d have to be crazy to hire him, and Joe’s current clients certainly fit the bill"). Hill's Sixsmith has indeed set up office and established himself as a PI, but his effectiveness on the case (or cases) is mostly due to good fortune and a heavily premeditated plot. Blood Sympathy opens with the confession of a presumably crazy man, who swears that he has dreamed his family's death and takes Joe home just in time for his dream to become a reality. Joe also finds himself trying to defend a family of immigrants from charges of smuggling, steal a voodoo charm, and keep an eye on the prankster teens harassing a local shopkeeper. Of course (as in most good detective novels) these multiple cases all have thematic or actual links, and of course (again, as per tradition) Joe is frequently at odds with the local police force who resent his intervention. Hill supplements Sixsmith's cases with some good old-fashioned romantic meddling and a token feline, both of which provide some of the lightest and most enjoyable moments in the novel as a whole.

Without giving too much away, the plot of this novel is standard and predictable, not due to a comfortable familiarity with the author's work but due to Hill's repeated inclusion of nearly every twist and trope common to the detective genre. His protagonist is perhaps unique, but Sixsmith's age and background add little to the novel: it becomes quickly a comedy of errors, both in Sixsmith's detecting and in Hill's laboured plot devices. Although I believe very much in giving authors a second chance, it will be a little while before I pick up another novel by Reginald Hill, and I plan to steer towards some of his more traditional detective fare on that occasion. Blood Sympathy is written competently and shows Hill's extensive awareness of the detective genre, but it lacks the creativity, surprise, and intermittent humour found in works by many of his colleagues.

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