Saturday SkandiCrime: Arne Dahl – Requiem


Kerstin Holm

If the BBC want us to take Arne Dahl seriously, then they should not preface it with a trailer for The Bridge 3, and especially not one that was soundtracked by Johnny Cash’s lacerating version of “Hurt”. It’s too blatant a reminder of the exceptional, and even though that part of the trailer that did not consist of flashbacks to Martin’s arrest at the end of The Bridge 2 were nothing more than Sara’s motionless face, sat behind the wheel of a car, staring at the titular Bridge, it contained more dramatic tension than the whole two parts of this week’s Adventures in Crime-Solving with A-Group.

‘Requiem’ started with a bank robbery, with hostages, one of which was Kerstin Holm. The robbers killed two people and escaped via a meticulously planned escape route with 20 million krone and the thing they were actually after, though ‘it’ turned out to be incomplete.

A-Group was set to put its massive collective brainpower to the solving of who, what, why and what the hell ‘it’ was. It was Sweden’s top six cops, plus Paul Hjelm, who you just can’t keep out of it despite his being in a totally different department, versus a total of five people, not all of whom were in the same side.

These baddies amounted to a slightly baby-faced computer whizz, backed by a laid-back older guy with a goatee, who may or may not have been behind everything, two common or garden Russian thugs who were probably ex-KGB (or Ka-Jha-Ba, as the Swedes so inelegantly pronounce it) and were too bloody stupid for words, and a grim-faced, white-haired guy with rimless spectacles who was apparently an American holiday-maker, who shot most of the bad guys at one point or another, without having it away on his toes with ‘it’. Oh, and he never opened his mouth once and still terrified Goatee-guy (maybe he’s got baaaaaaaad breath?). This though Goatee-guy was seriously ex-KGB, and the mysterious boss of a major crime syndicate.

‘It’, for those who managed to stay awake long enough under the relentless tedium, turned out to be thirty-year old plans for the potentially mythical Cold Fusion. Baby-faced technology Professor, who had young Ida gazing up from under lashes and fringe from the moment she first saw him, denied that it would work, but still nipped off with photos of the blueprints and a keen idea of how to use them to make himself incredibly rich.

For those of us assuming we’d be watching a crime drama, there was sad disappointment in all the twists and turns, along domestic cul-de-sacs, as we followed the little melodramas of people’s lives. Will Chavez and Sara’s marriage survive, given that he wants 12 children and she’d rather stick with the one they’ve got, which he can barely handle bringing up anyway? Has Kerstin acted too soon by taking up with Bengt, just because he cares for her deeply, is instinctively supportive and wants to be a father figure to her son? Is Paul still the biggest horse’s ass in Sweden, like he was in  series 1? (Oh yes he is, believe me).

Over two hours, I’d say there was definitely about forty minutes of story if you didn’t want to take things too fast, which was much the same as last week, only the two hours felt much longer. Series 1 was amiably dull, but series 2 is stretching patience that is already paper-thin when it seems likely that three more weeks of this separate us from The Bridge 3.

And it’s not as if the series can raise itself to be decently stupid or offensive so that I can snark it unmercifully.

People, this is going to be a trail…

Murphy Anderson, R.I.P.


His name won’t mean anything to you unless you’re a comic book fan, and maybe not then if you only started during the last twenty years and weren’t interested in the history of the field. Murphy Anderson, who has died aged 89, was one of my favourite artists during the Sixties, a comsummate professional, with a smooth, clear line, consistently excellent as penciller, inker or cover artist.

Anderson was part of Julius Schwartz’s little ‘stable’ throughout that part of the Sixties that saw the return of the superhero after a decade in the doldrums. He was in constant demand from Schwartz to ink the likes of Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane, and later Curt Swan, when Schwartz added Superman to his roster.

Anderson was also a penciller on Adam Strange, the space hopping Archaeologist who became the Defender of the Planet Rann. He was the artist who converted the revived  Hawkman from a flop to the star of his own four-year running series, and it was he who drew those wonderful, though commercially unavailing Golden Age revivals that I adored so much.

He was never an innovative artist, but he was a steady, reliable, and clear artist who told a story in a traditional fashion, with crisp panels unfolding infallibly. And he could draw bloody good redheads, which is why there’s a drawing of Hawkgirl up top.

Rest well, Mr Anderson, and thank you for all the fun and excitement you brought to me.

Worth seeing again.

Dan Dare: Green Nemesis


Having lived the dream of practically every Dan Dare fan who’s ever lived in writing a new story that had been drawn by two ‘real’ Eagle artists, Rod Barzilay got what he’d originally wanted: the chance to write a true ‘epic’ adventures, a story that would last forty episodes, and of course feature the Mekon as the protagonist.
Green Nemesis follows directly on from The Phoenix Mission, as a reconstituted Marco Polo expedition returns to the Sargasso to resume the original expedition and, this time, investigate Professor Peabody’s theory that the whole thing has been created by the destruction of the Red Moon. Given that the Prof’s theory centres upon the Moon and the Sea having been powered by a small and manipulable Black Hole, it’s hardly a surprise that it attracts the attention of Earth’s most implacable enemy.
I have to be honest and say that, enjoyable as it is, Green Nemesis is nothing like as successful as its predecessor. In part this is, unavoidably, due to the inconsistency of the art. Don Harley had agreed to continue drawing the revival, but upon the same conditions as before: that it should be fitted in around his other, ‘professional’ commitments. For something that involved nineteen pages, and which had an indefinite deadline, that was perfectly workable.
But Green Nemesis not only demanded eighty pages of work, it had a real deadline. Spaceship Away was published three times a year and it set out to publish three episodes of the story each issue. That meant eighteen pages a year. Barzilay had temporised when Harley had not yet made up his mind, contacting latter-day Dan Dare artist David Pugh to produce a splendid first page, but that still left seventy-nine, and Harley is no longer young.
Inevitably, things had to give. Barzilay had already been contacted by artist/writer Tim Booth, whose own new Dan Dare story, The Gates of Eden (coming up next) had started appearing in Spaceship Away. Booth was a natural choice to assist Harley in completing one page, and frequency was reduced to two episodes per issues.
But even at this rate, Green Nemesis was proving too time-consuming. When it became clear Harley would not be able to fit enough pages into his schedule, Booth was the obvious replacement. For a time, the art would alternate between the pair, as Harley was considered the number one choice, but eventually Booth took over the story completely (in parallel to The Gates of Eden, which he was also writing) until the story was done.
This artistic muddle did not help Green Nemesis one little bit, but the story was in any event a much less coherent affair from the outset. I said about The Phoenix Mission that Barzilay had, understandably, tried to cram too much into too little space. But now he had the space to justify the extended cast he’d devised, he made the mistake of dividing the story into too many strands.
Whilst the majority of post-Hampson stories had focussed upon Dan and Digby only, with very few and brief tangents into what other characters might be doing, Dan’s creator had never been averse to maintaining parallel tracks, centred upon multiple characters. Barzilay attempts to extend this approach, but is too ambitious. Counting the Mekon himself, there are four separate, interweaving, principle tracks in the body of the story, only two of which (Dan and Dig, the Professor and Uncle Ivor) feature major characters.
There are simply too many things going on, featuring unknown or minor characters for smooth reading. At three (or two) episodes every four months, I found the story sprawling and confusing, and reading the whole thing in a concentrated Spaceship Away session was little better. Only when I deliberately set out to read Green Nemesis as a whole, ignoring everything else, could I get a grasp of its structure, and follow the individual threads with understanding.
Leaving aside the complicated structure of the story, Barzilay continues to be ambitious in filling in elements of a coherent Dan Dare universe. He ventures towards a slightly more feminist milieu by bringing in another woman scientist, in the form of the Theron Katoona Kalon, granddaughter of the Theron President. President Kalon is missing, presumed dead, since the Treen Holocaust, and the Mekon spends a great deal of time trying to capture Katoona, including trying to tempt her to surrender by revealing that her grandfather lives, in suspended animation, like Dan’s friends.
That the President’s whereabouts on Venus are discovered off-screen, relieving Katoona of her emotional struggle, is a bit of a cop-out.
Barzilay had already, in The Phoenix Mission, introduced Dennis Steeper’s conception of the Union Wars that keep Red Tharl and Saturn out of the way for many years, and in Green Nemesis he goes one better, off his own bat, introducing into the derelict ships of the Sargasso the craft on which the late dictator, Vora, entered the Solar System, itself powered by two balanced suns that, together with the Sargasso’s black hole, threatens to destroy everybody before the job is done.
I’d like to like Green Nemesis better than I do, and whilst I wouldn’t hesitate to criticise, say, Eric Eden over his writing of an adventure, I’m loathe to do the same with Rod Barzilay. He’s not a professional writer. He’s a fan like me, and, more importantly, he’s done something that I don’t believe I could have done, and written no less than two whole Dan Dare stories. And he was candid on more than one occasion in Spaceship Away about the very flaws I’ve identified and where he’d gone wrong. I’ve no doubt that, given the chance of a re-write, he’d have done a much better job.
But whilst I think that Green Nemesis was flawed, confused and difficult to follow, which is a failing of Barzilay’s plotting, on the other hand, except in minor respects, his actual scripting is solid, his dialogue not just believable but believable in the mouths of characters we tell ourselves we know as intimately as our own family, and when I read Green Nemesis, I believe that I am reading Dan Dare, the Pilot of the Future.
Being aware of The Phoenix Mission when writing The Report of the Cryptos Commission, Denis Steeper included both that and Green Nemesis in the index of Dan’s adventures. Indeed, he went further, completing a trilogy with Ghosts of the Sargasso, a story that remains to be told. Rod Barzilay has retired from Spaceship Away and writing Dan Dare stories, but I’ve still got a hankering to see what the final part contains: presumably, it would encompass examination of the spherical spaceship that is the progenitor of the Tempus Frangit
One point remains to be considered. Both these stories are what, in the American comics industry, would be called “retcons” (a contraction of retroactive continuity). The stories have been fitted in between The Ship That Lived and The Phantom Fleet, though they’ve been used in large part to colour in large swathes of the unknown background to stories up to that point.
There’s only one piece of blatant foreshadowing, near the end, when ‘Friday’ MacFarlane decides that all this racketing around in danger is too much for him and he’s going to put in for a transfer to the Moon Run – where we see him one final time in the first week of The Phantom Fleet.
But there’s a bigger issue to think of. In the official saga, there is no sign of the Mekon between The Ship That Lived (where everybody but Digby thinks he’s dead) and The Solid-space Mystery where Dan and Digby both react in shock to his appearance, exclaiming that he’s dead. Green Nemesis is at least consistent in leaving our heroes thinking that the Mekon to be dead again when the Spacelab blows up.
A foolish consistency is not always the hobgoblin of little minds.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Last Hero


The Last Hero describes itself, on its cover, as ‘A Discword Fable’ and that’s a very good description for it, although the story is as ‘real’ as is anything else concerning this amazingly improbable and impractical creation.
Like Eric, it appeared as an oversized book, illustrated by the new Discworld cover artist, Paul Kidby. Indeed, illustrated is hardly the word, though most people append the adjective profusely. Kidby appears on virtually every page of this story, and is considerably more integrated into the book than was Josh Kirby, in Eric.
By the time The Last Hero appeared, in 2001, Kidby had already been working with Pratchett for several years, starting with the works quickly collected as The Pratchett Portfolio. He doesn’t just add art to the story, he gets deeply into it, and he produces several diagrams that are clearly co-works with the author, and which underpin this fable with lots of structural detail.
The story, which is pretty much a sequel to Interesting Times, is fairly straightforward. Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde, motivated principally by the death of one of their number, Vincent, through choking on a fishbone, have decided to go out in a blaze of glory. They have decided to take fire back to the Gods, in their retreat, Dunmanifestin, at the spire Cori Celesti, at the centre of Discsworld.
The problem is going to be that it won’t just be them going out in a blaze of glory, it will be everyone, up to and including Discworld itself, elephants and turtle as well. Their little firebomb will cancel the Discworld’s magical field, leading to instant… well, instantness.
Something’s got to be done to head them off though, as this is the Silver Horde, who have got to their present age by outliving all their enemies, mostly by use of swords, that’s not going to be easy. The team that’s going to do this consists of Rincewind, as the only person that might be able to talk to Cohen, Leonard of Quirm to design and pilot a craft that can get the expedition to Cori Celesti, and Captain Carrot, to arrest the Horde if need be.
The ‘support’ team for this project therefore consists of the Faculty, directed primarily by the over-bright Ponder Stibbins and a for once out of his league Patrician. Bring ingredients to boil, stir well and pour.
Despite the fact that The Last Hero involves such a manifest and critical danger, it’s still a fairly slight story, written with little more behind it than the urge to have fun and create drama. In large part, that’s because it’s entirely external, to use the terms that I’ve been developing along this series of reviews.
Pratchett never internalises any of his mixed cast, preferring to keep us outside everybody’s head, except in the case of immediate emotions, mainly those of Rincewind (think fear, and flight). This is usually the case with Carrot anyway, as I have observed more than once, but as this book doesn’t include any characters that examine him for us, it renders him into a superficial character who, though an obvious choice for this mission, has nothing to do during the course of it.
The same goes for Leonard, who is Leonard throughout with very little variation on the perpetually brilliant inventor we’ve seen before. However, with no-one around to comment upon his detached perspective and his habit of designing extreme death war machines whilst doodling, again he comes over as something of a still-life.
Only Rincewind receives something of the attention we normally expect.
And, of course, Cohen. The Horde are out for their last ride. Cohen’s tried being Emperor of Agatea, and the Horde have tried living in the lap of luxury but it hasn’t taken. They’re just not trained for it, and the loss of Vincent to a death that they cannot but see as demeaning has fired off some primal anger. The age of heroes is gone, and they can see that, and see just how out of place that makes them. They’re the last ones, and they have no worlds left to conquer, so they’re going to take it out on the Gods themselves for, in some indefinable fashion, doing this to them.
They’ve even dragged a bard along to compose a proper saga about it.
Though the mission team get slightly more of the book, it’s Cohen’s journey, with the final shucking off of barbarian tropes that contains the emotional heart of this Fable. The Horde themselves want to make sure everything’s done properly according to the Code, one last time.
But when the Horde realise that their last time is going to be everybody’s last time, there is a change of heart. There’s got to be a world left behind them, in which sagas can be sung, otherwise there’s no point. So the final charge of the Silver Horde, into myth and legend and, also, the stars in the heavens, is outwards.
The Discworld is safe, and after all, no-one finds any bodies, and they were always difficult to kill. And there is the saga…
It’s a moving end, but it doesn’t disguise the main problem with The Last Hero, which is that it’s too thin. It’s got too little in it, when the truth is that it’s a bigger story than Pratchett wants to pretend, and it lacks the substance it should have had.
On the other hand, it was intended as a showcase for Kidby as well, and Pratchett had a lot of writing going on this year, so it’s understandable. For for me, The Last Hero goes down as a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s good, but it could have been much better.

It’s just a Bit of Fun


Two things happened almost simultaneously at work this afternoon.

I was investigating the case of a customer who couldn’t receive any incoming calls. We’d instructed a BT Openreach Engineer to go out  and find out why our customer couldn’t get any incoming calls. He’d closed the case saying he’d found nothing wrong. I looked at his report. He stated that there were no noises on the line, so he’d cleared the case.

At almost the same moment, one of my colleagues handed me a sheet of tinfoil to use as a morale-building exercise.

Hours later, I still cannot decide which one depresses me more.

 

The Goal That Never Was


I feel sorry for Gateshead fans. Not so much for the injustice their Club received in 1958, voted out of the Football League after appearing in the re-election places for only the second time in their thirty year run. Nor for their having seen their club dissolve and reform four times since. No, what I feel sorry for them about is playing their home games at the International Athletics Stadium.

The first, and fairly obvious point to make about the Stadium is that it isn’t a purpose built football ground. It has a full-scale pitch at its centre, but this is surrounded on all sides by a full, eight-lane running track. This is never a good thing for a football ground as it instantly distances the crowd from the game. As stadia like the old Wembley, this was surmountable by sheer atmosphere, but as a venue for a non-League team whose gate could be numbered in hundreds, it would never work.

But the worst of it is that that typical no-League crowd has nowhere to go except the Main Stand, on one side of the pitch. The Stand is built to suit the larger athletic crowds, and Gateshead’s fans do little to come near filling it, their cries and shouts resounding like echoes of ghosts in the overexpansive surroundings. And as there is no possibility of sitting or standing behind either goal, or on the further side, the game is carried out in a three-sides empty stadium.

The Club did unveil plans in 2009 to build a proper Football Stadium for themselves in Gateshead City Centre, but these don’t seem to have gone anywhere yet.

Of all the non-League grounds I visited in a near ten year spell following Droylsden, the Athletics Stadium is by far and away the most successful atmosphere-killer.

I went to Gateshead with Droylsden in the 1999/2000 season, our first back in the Unibond Premier Division. In view of the distance, I forewent driving, and travelled on the team coach (on which there were usually 20 places for supporters, to help defray the expense). It was actually a fun experience, if you could ignore the usual beery rowdiness, childishness and vulgarity on the way home: not the players, who just congregated at the back of the bus and drank, but you should have seen the Committee Men! It was during this game that I had one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had in life, let alone sport.

This came about an hour into the game. We had taken the lead, and Gateshead levelled before half-time. Now they were attacking along their left flank, directly in front of us, playing right to left.

One of their players picked up the ball and moved infield. Our defence didn’t challenge him for the ball, but let him come on until, in front of goal and about twenty-five yards out, he swivelled and let fly with a ground shot. The shot was all along the ground, beat our keeper on his right hand, and rolled about one to two foot inside the post and into the net.

Then it kept on rolling, without the slightest change of pace, away into the distance behind the goal.

By some piece of sloppiness, the net had not been properly fixed to the ground at that point, and the shot had just gone straight through it. Both teams surrounded the officials, none of whom could say, definitively that they had been the ball go in between the posts. So the game restarted with a goal-kick, to our relief and Gateshead’s frustration. There was no more score, so Gateshead were denied a win and we got away with a point we should never have had.

That this happened at all was strange in itself but the truly wierd thing about it was how I reacted. I had an unobstructed view, I’d seen the ball go inside the post, started the indrawn breath of frustration, even seen the ball hit the net. But the moment that ball continued, uninterrupted, my mind kicked in to override what I had actually seen. The ball has not ended up in the net, therefore it had never been in the net, the shot had missed, it had gone outside the post. I’d seen what I’d seen, but the instant that the expected outcome failed to materialise, my brain started to rewrite history, to fit the facts to the outcome.

It was one of the most utterly strange things to ever happen to me, and I was not alone. The same thing had gone to everyone around me. We had all seen Gateshead score, we had collectively begun to groan, and we each of us now doubted the evidence of our eyes. Terry Pratchett makes much use of this phenomenon in the Discworld books, particularly when Death is about, but this was real life.

I struggled with myself but ended up convincing myself that I had seen what I’d seen, that Gateshead had had a legitimate goal unjustly allowed. But without replays of any kind being possible, I had only what I had fleetingly seen to guide me, and I needed an effort of will to believe myself.

The goal that never was, and the instant conviction that overruled the evidence of my eyes. It was a bizarre experience, but I experienced it, because I was there.

Deep Space Nine s1e03: “Past Prologue”


Tuesday night is henceforth DS9 night, and this is where the series truly begins, to start filling in details of the world that surrounds the silent, unmoving station.

Episode 3 focused upon three characters principally, although only one of them started to take proper shape. ‘Past Prologue’ was about Major Kira’s past as a Bajoran terrorist, and to the extent of how much she was changed since the Cardassians were thrown off her planet.

Kira’s stance was set off against that of Tana Los, a former comrade-in-arms who has remained a terrorist, with the Khon-Ma. Tana entered, stage right, pursued by a Cardassian ship bent on shooting him down. Immediately he was teleported aboard DS9, he claimed Political Asylum. Commander Sisko’s first decision was whether to grant it.

As far as Kira was concerned, there was no question: Sisko had to protect Tana. When he actually showed signs of thinking it through first, she tried going over his head to the Admiral, which didn’t work this time and was contraindicated as a means of progressing her career if she ever tried it again.

What Kira saw was a man who, claiming he had renounced the Khon-Ma, and violence, could do immeasurable good in helping to build up Bajor. Tana was less convinced that Bajor was on the right course: he wanted a planet that was not merely independent but isolated, and at the end of the day his plan was to achieve that in one go by exploding a vastly explosive device to shut down this end of the Wormhole. No wormhole, nothing for the Federation or the Cardassians to want out of Bajor. Simple as.

In the end, Kira was forced to lay her faith in what she saw as Bajor’s best interest. Having to betray either Tana or Sisko, to whom she had no actual loyalty, ended with her committing to the Federation. Tana was defeated, and surrendered to the Federation rather than have the Cardassians take him home, but he still managed to flay the worried Kira with the word ‘Traitor’. The Major made the right choice, but it clearly felt wrong on some fundamental level she’s going to have to work out.

And, on a lighter note, at least Nana Visitor had gotten rid of that dreadfully ugly hairdo from the pilot and settled on the rather sharp, slightly mannish and very Eighties style that she wears for the rest of the series. Much hotter, and it lets us see that weird Bajoran ear jewellery out in the open.

Though this was a Kira-centric episode, it didn’t look to be so during the deliberately lightweight first half of the pre-credit sequence. This was given over to Doctor Bashir, not really opening up but certainly demonstrated his utter naivete at this stage, as he nervously responds to an approach by the enigmatic Garak, played with subtle glee by Andrew Robinson. As the lone Cardassian still on the station, suspected to be a spy but protesting that he is a mere tailor, Robinson stayed far from overplaying but still marked what would be a gloriousrecurring role for all it was worth.

And in his intrigues with the renegade Klingon sisters – were those cleavages real, or just impressive costumery? – to sell out Tana, which he deliberately exposed to Bashir, was the beginning of one long and interesting journey. Not that either he or Bashir gave anything away that was more than superficial. It’s early yet, plenty of time for them to start to be defined.

I’m not going to start handing out marks out of ten or anything like that, but this was a good, well thought-out and intriguing episode, ideal for opening out a new series. There should, I hope, be more such to come.

You’re Recommending What?!


eBay has gone off its head. Its algorithms have cracked.

How else can you explain the home page I have just opened? Last night, in preparation for another chronological readthrough/blog series, I rebought cheaply a couple of books by the late, great SF author, Alfred Bester. The latter of these was Golem 100, a fast-paced, aggressive prefiguration of cyberpunk, a roller-coaster book.

Today, based on my purchase of this SF novel, eBay’s recommendations based thereupon are: The Experts Guide to the Triathlon, A Complete Guide to Scottish Country Dancing and Enciclopedieto de Cinio. This appears to be an Encyclopedia of, or probably in, Esperanto.

What the hell?

Swallows and Amazons: Let’s Try Again, or maybe…


Can you imagine this man in ‘Swallows and Amazons’? Me neither.

Reading a feature interview in today’s Observer magazine with Andrew Scott, the impossibly charismatic Jim Moriarty of Sherlock, I was startled by a passing mention of his filming a re-make of Swallows and Amazons, set in the Lake District (I’m sorry, did someone think you could possibly set it somewhere else?).

The news of a new film, some forty plus years after the good-hearted but ultimately unconvincing Virginia McKenna/Ronald Fraser version in 1974, came as a simultaneously welcome and unwelcome thought. I mean, I love the book, and anything set in the Lakes that uses the landscape will drag me down Grand Central, but what the heck are they going to do to it this time? I mean, Andrew Scott, utterly brilliant, but who the hell is he going to play? Surely not Captain Flint?

One hasty Google later, I am left yet more concerned. No, Scott is not playing Captain Flint, that honour goes to Rafe Spall (so we’re not casting according to descriptions in the book then). No, silly me, I should have realised, Scott’s going to play Lazlow. How obvious.

That there is, of course, no such character in Swallows and Amazons alerts us to the fact that some serious fuckery could be about to take place. The news that they’ve also been filming in West Yorkshire (I’m sorry, but reservoirs off the M62 don’t look anything like the Lake District) doesn’t fill me with anticipation, either.

What the film plans to do, I would surmise, is to shift the balance of the story well away from the Walker and Blackett children, who are the whole point of the novel, and towards Captain Flint. Notably, Spall’s part is not being referred to by the cognomen that Nancy and Peggy Blackett have long since lavished on their Uncle, but as Jim Turner.

Turner/Flint in the book is a mainly offstage character, until the final phase of the book, where he is brought properly onscreen by the robbery on the Houseboat. It’s widely recognised that the preoccupied author is Ransome himself, and that’s the key to the new film. It’s now recognised that Arthur Ransome was not merely a journalist in Russia during the Revolution, but that he was also an operative of MI6.

What the film plans to do, according to reports, is to bring that hitherto hidden aspect of Ransome back to Jim Turner: Lazlow is an old enemy from the spy world. This has the potential to be A Very Bad Idea Indeed, not least if the film intends to follow through on this descriptive paragraph: “The story follows four children dreaming of an escape from the tedium of a summer holiday with their mother. When finally given permission to camp on their own on a remote island in the middle of a vast lake, they are overjoyed. But when they get there they discover they may not be alone… As they battle for ownership of the island, they learn the skills of survival and the value of friendship, which helps prepare them for the real danger they must face from the adult world.”

Does that fill you with dread? It does me. At least the probability is that if Turner is Ransome 2.0, the tale will take place in the late Twenties/early Thirties, though I shudder at the devastation that could be caused if they update it.

(One necessary updating has already occurred: Mrs Walker’s middle daughter will be called Tatty).

Nevertheless, I am prepared to be more open-minded about this film, which should appear in 2016 than I am about the ever-nearing Dad’s Army re-make. As long as the scenery’s plentifully in sight, and they have filmed on Peel Island on Coniston Water, I shall be partially satisfied.

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.