Reginald Hill: A Comparison of Titles


Firstly, let me make it plain that I like Reginald Hill, and miss the prospect of new works by him. I used to have a then-complete collection of the Dalziel and Pascoe books in varying paperback editions, which I only gave up due to demands of space (my former mother-in-law enjoyed them very much as well).

Having picked the books up second-hand in various places, I never read the series in chronological order, which I regret. There is a consistent sense of development, a continuity from book to book as Hill expanded upon the personalities and circumstances of his principle characters.

Despite the title of the series, which had run to 24 books before Hill’s death, the books were in fact a three-hander from a relatively early stage. Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel and Detective Sergeant (progressing to Chief Inspector) Peter Pascoe formed a triumvirate with Detective Sergeant Edgar (Ed) Wield.

And in later books, the team was augmented by Detective Constables Shirley (‘Ivor’) Novello, Ethelbert (‘Hat’) Bowler and, from time to time the older, but less ambitious Dennis Seymour.

I occasionally hoick a Hill, or two, out of the Library, when I make one of my irregular visits. This post stems from such a visit, when I walked out with the books A Clubbable Woman and A Cure for all Diseases, being respectively the first and penultimate books of the series. The massive differences between the two and, let me be honest, the vast superiority of the first, seemed worthy of comment.

Yes, of course there are going to be massive differences. There were thirty nine years between the writing of the two books, and millions of words. The redoubtable, ugly and super-efficient Weildy (who doesn’t make his debut until book 5, A Pinch of Snuff, eight years later) is not on hand at first, Dalziel and Pascoe are very much opposites forced together by the job, lacking in any great respect for each other at first, and good friends understanding of each other’s capabilities in the later book (though change was clearly coming, as I’ll explain shortly).

But this is the stuff of series fiction, or at any rate of good series fiction (plenty of series get by on creative inertia, relying on the audience only ever wanting what it’s already had, ad nauseam). What struck me most was the massive stylistic difference between the two works.

A Clubbable Woman is a detective story, pure and simple. It has no ambition to be anything but a superior version of a detective story, built on the spine of the relationship between its mis-matched pair of detectives. Andy Dalziel is old school: fat, crude, domineering, seemingly no more than a bruiser (his old Rugby-playing nickname). The Fat Man is Lord of all he surveys, an insensitive bulldozer, age not given but probably late forties.

The phrase has not yet been invented, but Dalziel is splendidly, unashamedly, resplendently Politically Incorrect.

In contrast, Peter Pascoe, in his late twenties, is slim, sensitive, give to thought and introspection, and intelligent. He’s a Policeman with a University degree that, we’ll learn in the second book that Hill had never intended, has isolated him from most of his friends. He regards Dalziel as a monster, both for himself and for our benefit, and is constantly surprised at Dalziel’s inventiveness and ability, when Pascoe is, without any trace of complacency or arrogance, clearly the more intelligent man.

They’re investigating a murder connected to the local Rugby club (curiously, in Mid-Yorkshire, a hotbed of Rugby League, the sport is Union, a mis-match that Hill never explains). Stuart ‘Connie’ Connon, a potential international whose chances were ruined by injury, takes a kick on the head playing for the Fourths and comes home early on a Saturday night. His unpleasant, buxom, older wife Mary is watching TV silently. Connie collapses onto his bed for several hours. When he wakes in the early hours, Mary is still watching TV. Only her skull has been crushed, in the centre of her forehead.

The investigation focuses upon the club and its members, underlaid by rumours that someone – possibly Connie – is knocking off the glamorous Gwen Edwards, wife of the Club Captain, Arthur. Arthur certainly thinks it’s Connie, but whilst he’s right to be suspicious, he’s completely, improbably wrong about who Gwen’s lover really is.

Hill attaches a couple of closely-related subplots to the investigation. Connie’s neighbour opposite, Dave Fernie, is a nasty-minded windbag, self-opinionated and stupid with it, but though he’s a blowhard, his wife – one of Mary’s few friends – shuts him down comprehensively when he’s proved wrong.

And Connie’s splendidly independent daughter Jenny (who is probably not his own, not in blood, but definitely his own in love and influence) returns from University in Edinburgh, followed by the local lothario, Anthony, who, despite his tendency to use ten words where one might be more than adequate, has fallen solidly, supportively and reliably in love with her.

In the end, the murder is an accident, self-inflicted, but the ‘villain’ is still apprehended in good fashion, at Twickenham (which is why, I suppose, Hill went for Union rather than League). The legal outcome is, wisely, left to the reader’s imagination, into which Hill has implanted a very convincing shade of grey.

Overall, A Clubbable Woman is a very well-written, smooth crime story, taut in the sense of not being baggy, of remaining focused upon the crime at its heart, but not clipped, over-dramatic or unrealistic. The crime’s the thing, the differences in the two coppers is a rich and thick icing that leaves you wanting more. Hill intended the book – his first to be published, in 1970 – as a one-off, but liked Dalziel and Pascoe enough to want to bring them back.

Oh, and the paperback is a neat, substantial 313 pp in length, though it feels shorter.

The first thing we notice about A Cure for all Diseases is that it is almost twice as long (613 pp to be exact), though in the reading of it it feels longer. It follows on from The Death of Dalziel, which does not kill the Fat Man off, but which does have him caught by a terrorists’ bomb early on, and hovering between life and death for the rest of the book.

A Cure for all Diseases therefore sees a still convalescent Andy in a small but luxurious nursing home, having his strength built back up, in a manner foreign to his nature but effective in its way. Dalziel has to adjust to his reduced strength, against which he licks as against any of the pricks he has usually ridden roughshod over.

Of course, there’s a murder on his doorstep. Again it’s a woman, and even more of an overt monster than Mary Connon (who we never see in life in the earlier book). The tyrannical, aristocratic, domineering Lady Banstead is strangled and, with spectacular gruesomeness, her body is placed in the hog-roast contraption that’s supposed to be serving up a roasted hog (what else?) for the many guests celebrating the Grand Opening of the Avalon Clinic that’s going to put the small coastal town of Sandytown on the map.

The first and biggest difference between the two books is that Mary Connon’s body was discovered at the end of Chapter 1. Lady Denham’s part-roasted corpse doesn’t arrive until the end of Volume 1, almost 200 pages into the book.

What has constituted the story thus far? It has been an elaborate scene-setting, divided between setting up all the people relevant to the background of the murder – a cast far greater in number than in A Clubbable Woman – and setting up Andy Dalziel’s presence and current state of mind and body.

That this has taken almost a third of the book is down to the precise methods Hill has chosen to provide his exposition. Both are first person, and they are in their separate ways deliberately rambling, because they’re meant to be the personal, meandering thoughts of two outsiders.

We start with Charlotte ‘Charley’ Howard, psychology student, daughter of a bluff, backwards-thinking farmer father, who Knows Best and is wont to out-Dalziel Dalziel. Charley, who is studying alternate medicines from the point of view of what its successful patents take from it, gets the opportunity to stay a few days with the Parker family, who are opening their new holistic centre in co-operation with Lady Denham.

Charley has a sister who’s a nurse in a war-torn area of Africa. Charley e-mails her sister (with a complete lack of punctuation, especially commas, inverted or otherwise) incessantly, to tell her what’s going on, with an increasingly improbably precise recollection of conversations, and loads of digressions: this is a ‘real’ person, remember.

Charley’s increasingly irritating e-mails alternate with Hill’s other invention. As part of the mental side of the healing process, the Fat Man is given a digital recording device for him to talk into, to record his thoughts in complete privacy. It’s the sort of thing that the Andy Dalziel of twenty-two books to date would have dismissed with a crudity too forceful for Hill ever to dream of printing, but instead, Andy calls his device Mildred and, after some token opposition to the very idea, sets down to gabble away into it interminably.

Though he gets some practical use out of it by recording some pertinent conversations illegally, at first by accident but thereafter with his usual relish.

That’s how Hill stretches this book out to nearly two hundred pages of, to be frank, stylised blether, before the first murder.

As to the investigation, it is a professionally handled case, with carefully plotted twists and turns, not only in the sifting through the plethora of subjects, but in the clashes of personality inside Pascoe’s team – Novello and Bowler are in almost open competition to progress their careers – and between them and useful outsiders, such as the forthright, sturdily independent Charley and the nosey but informative nine tear old, Minnie Parker.

In this phase, the book is at its best. Hill has lost none of his skills as a crime fiction writer, and the story is complex but always within the realms of the plausible. There’s a little touch of the Ellery Queens in how certain information is held back until after the official murderer is revealed, and only then does a seemingly innocent character come into the frame as the real, unpunishable killer.

And there’s a change in the air. For a long time, despite the recognition of those differences that will never be resolved, the principal stars have worked in cooperative tandem, with mutual respect. Now Hill is leading into a structural change that, sadly, we would never see coming to fruition. Dalziel’s been laid up for months now, during which time, Pascoe has, though a mere DCI, headed the team. Pete’s been in charge, and whether or not he’s conscious of it, he likes the freedom, and the responsibility, of doing things his way, without Andy breathing down his neck.

And here’s his boss, on the crime scene, with no official role to play, but still throwing his weight about. And whether Peter Pascoe is aware of it or not, Andy Dalziel can clearly see that his protege thrives on being the only bull in the field.

(The theme would be developed in Midnight Fugue, which takes place over the twenty-four hours before Dalziel returns to duty, thus postponing the inevitable clash to the twenty-fifth book of the series, another that would only exist in Lucien’s Library in The Dreaming.)

There’s another element in A Cure for all Diseases that contributes to its tendency towards elephantiasis, and this is the ongoing story of Franny Roote. Roote was introduced in the second book of the series, An Advancement of Learning, as a conspicuously clever, manipulative, psychopathic student who was involved in the death of the former College Principal being investigated by our still abrasive pair. Roote was convicted and imprisoned.

But Hill subsequently brought him back, in 2000’s Arms and the Women, and thereafter in the two following novels (essentially a single story split into two volumes). Roote gets under Pascoe’s skin and into his head in a bad way, and we are left unable to determine the truth about this extremely clever young man, for whom things are going increasingly well, all the time that people conveniently die around him.

By the end of this ‘trilogy’, Roote redeems himself in a manner that convinces Pascoe, and most of us reading, which appears to lead directly to his death in a sacrifice that saves Pascoe’s young daughter, Rosie, from being killed. It doesn’t alter any of the previous facts or suspicions, but it makes a hell of an impact.

And Roote is back in A Cure for all Diseases, confined to a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down, overtly friendly but still Roote to his very, ah, roots. He has a scam running that has a peripheral relationship to the crime, not to mention springing the aforementioned Queenesque new evidence on the Fat Man, but hells bells, he doesn’t half talk.

That’s always been the problem with Roote, he goes on and on at length. Hill obviously relishes writing him, but every time he comes on the scene, the story nips off for a quick fag round the back, secure in knowing it won’t be wanted for quite a long time.

Looked at critically, there’s a very good, tight, 313 pp crime story in A Cure for all Diseases, wrapped up in a book that shows every sign of being bloated. Why has Reginald Hill’s fiction changed like this?

A partial explanation comes from an aspect of A Cure for all Diseases that I haven’t yet mentioned. Hill is a big Jane Austen fan, and Austen fans will have already spotted the homonym of Sandytown, and Jane’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Not having read that work, I am not in a position to comment but Hill openly states that his novel is to be informed by the structure of Austen’s work, and I have no doubt that it has been done very cleverly and precisely.

But that, not to mention the many digressive experiments that decorate Hill’s later books (a large part of Arms and the Women consists of an impromptu Ellie Pascoe novel based on the Odyssey, starring a thinly disguised Andy Dalziel as the maion man), says to me that Hill had long since outgrown crime fiction.

He still loved the form, respected it, and was convinced of its strengths and value, but my guess is that, after so many books, it would have bored him to tears to have written something on the level of A Clubbable Woman again. New variations on the theme, structuring his stories around classical literature, interleaving unlikely novels, was perhaps the only way he could sustain his interest in the subject.

It’s clever, extremely clever, and clever on a higher level than I can appreciate. I can admire A Cure for all Diseases but large swathes of it bore me to tears because of Hill’s formalist experiments, and I have no hesitation in saying that A Clubbable Woman was a far more enjoyable book, though not a ‘better’ one.

One day, I’d like to take on the Dalziel and Pascoe books in a series, book to book, chronological order. That depends on having access to all the books so that I can read them in chronological order, to time and circumstance are currently against that, for now.

 

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