Tuesday ’Tec! The Last National Service Man by Reginald Hill

asking for the moonTo you, dear author…

 

I don’t do fan mail but one of my bookish regrets is that I never made the effort to tell Reginald Hill how much pleasure he gave me over so many years. With current favourite authors, I think of my reviews as a form of fan mail, but Hill published what turned out to be his final book before I began reviewing. I joined the Dalziel and Pascoe series at probably around the eighth book, immediately read his entire back catalogue and from then on he was a ‘must read on publication day’ author – the first author who made it onto that exalted list. I enjoyed his standalones and am extremely fond of his Joe Sixsmith series, but it’s the Dalziel and Pascoe books I love most. So, time for him to make his overdue blog debut on this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 The Last National Service Man

by Reginald Hill

 

Reginald Hill 1936-2012
Reginald Hill 1936-2012

Dalziel and Pascoe made their first appearance in 1970 in A Clubbable Woman, as a wonderfully mismatched pair of detectives working in the Mid-Yorkshire CID. Andy Dalziel is an old-school copper, a larger-than-life, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Yorkshireman, but with an implaccable drive for justice that he will take into his own hands if the system fails to punish the guilty. Peter Pascoe is a graduate entry officer, complete with classical education and left-liberal ideology. On the surface, Dalziel is a bully and Pascoe a softie but, underneath, each has a core of steel and a loyalty to each other that builds and deepens as the series goes on. Neither compromises, exactly, but they learn to respect each other and value their different strengths.

In 1996, Hill produced a collection of 4 novella-length stories, Asking for the Moon, one of which, The Last National Service Man, is the story of Dalziel and Pascoe’s first meeting. After nearly thirty years, the series’ fan-base was as well-established as the duo themselves, so Hill has a lot of fun taking us back to those early days but with the added twist that we know how the two develop in their future. I think this could be read and enjoyed by someone coming to it without having read any of the books, but it’s filled with lots of ‘in’ jokes and references which make it a special joy for fans, to whom Hill dedicated the book with his usual wit.

Dedication 3

Dalziel has been away on a job in Wales and comes back to discover that a rookie graduate has been allocated to his team in his absence. He’s back to give evidence in court and coincidentally Pascoe is also at court to attend a different trial. Wieldy, the third member of the team and a major character in his own right in the later books, is there to pass a message to Dalziel. But first Dalziel and Pascoe, unbeknownst to the other, watch each other’s performance in court, and each is horrified by what he sees. Dalziel is up against a man being tried for rape of a prostitute…

“Nay, sir!” said Dalziel in all injured innocence. “Tha knows I’d never mention a man’s record in court, no matter how rotten it were. All I was going to say was, I said to myself, spotty little scrote like that, I bet he’d have to use force to get his own mother to kiss him goodnight!”

Appalled, young Pascoe hurries off to give his own evidence in the trial of two men charged with stealing a litter of piglets. The watching Dalziel is not a little stunned by the following exchange…

“As things stand” [said the lawyer] “it seems to me what we have here is a serious allegation of crime unsupported by any corpus delicti whatever.”

“Perhaps, Mr Harris,” said the magistrate who aspired to judicial wit, “we should say corpi as their were six or seven, or even eight, of them.”

“Indeed, sir. Corpi. Very good.”

“Corpora,” said Pascoe.

“I’m sorry?” said Harris, histrionically puzzled.

“The plural of corpus is corpora,” explained Pascoe.

With these two little sketches, Hill gives a beautifully witty summary of the differences between the two characters. And that’s the joy of his writing. I don’t think he ever tells us anything – he lets the characters tell us themselves. The story turns into a hostage situation when Dalziel and Pascoe are taken prisoner by a man with a grudge, but really it’s a device to put the two in a room together and let us see them getting to know each other. And, as they do, we see the wary beginnings of the respect that we know will eventually turn into an unlikely friendship over the years.

The quality of Hill’s writing is first-class – many of the later books read as much like literary fiction as crime. I hold him in part responsible for my pickiness about the standards of writing in crime fiction – he proved again and again that ‘genre’ fiction never needs to compromise on quality. Throughout his career he refused to jump on the book-a-year treadmill, which meant impatient waiting for his fans, but also ensured that his standards never dropped. I don’t ever remember reading one of his books and feeling let down by it – a remarkable achievement in such a long-running series. He loved to play games with words and structure, and with referencing some of the literary greats in his novels, but he could get away with it because he was skilled enough to play them well. And even at his most playful, he never forgot the need for great plots and consistent believable characterisation. He did darkness just as well as light, and some of his books are deeply emotionally harrowing. On Beulah Height is the book I always name when asked for my favourite crime novel, but actually I could pick several of the later books – he continued to develop and improve throughout his long career, never taking his fans for granted.

Belatedly, thank you, Mr Hill. You are missed.

* * * * *

dalziel

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ (It’s not a mystery)

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

51 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! The Last National Service Man by Reginald Hill

  1. No doubt about it, FIctionFan; Dalziel and Pascoe are two of crime fiction’s great characters. And their creator was so very talented, and much missed. I’ve always loved the dynamic between Dalziel and Pascoe, and the wit in the stories is memorable. And yet, Hill wasn’t afraid to create dark stories with complex and sometimes very unpleasant characters. I’m glad you’re featuring this duo today.

    • Yes, they should have appeared on the blog much sooner given how much I love the books! It was partly that you never knew what you were in for that made them so exciting to grab on publication day. Sometimes really light and witty, sometimes so dark they were quite tough to read. But always high quality. Must – must! – make time for some re-reads!

  2. I’ve never heard of him! But it seems, that his novels would be really good. And I like his picture; specifically, his hat, can you believe.

    I had to laugh at A Clubbable Woman. That’s just an epic funny title, don’t you think? Clubbable…

    • I don’t think he’s hugely well-known over on your side, though I think they did show the TV series. My Dad used to wear hats like that – we call them bunnets. He looks like he’d have been fun to know…

      *laughs* Yes! And she was clubbed too, poor woman! He loved to play with words – it was one of the things I most liked about him. (22 to add to your TBR, I think…)

    • He is! It used to be the highlight of my reading life, the day a new one came out! He was in the middle of one when he died and I kept hoping it was far enough along for them to get someone to finish it, but it’s never appeared. I had it on pre-order…

      Thank you! 🙂

    • The early ones – up to about On Beulah Height – can all be read as standalones. (I’ve shown the covers in publication order.) After that he played around with some recurring characters so it’s better to read them in order. Hmm… A Pinch of Snuff is one of the really good early ones, and The Woods Beyond is a good one that I think stands alone pretty well too. Hope you enjoy them!

  3. For whatever reason, I never r.eally got into these, but the few I did read (mostly on your recommendation, I think) were excellent. I agree with you about fan-mail, I don’t do it, but I sometimes regret not having done it. I do buy books avidly though, which is a sort of fan-mail, I suppose

    • The later ones started needing to be read in order which made it more tricky for people popping in and out, but most of the early ones can stand alone. I love reading them in order ‘cos you don’t just get to see Dalziel and Pascoe develop, but also you get to see Hill developing as a writer and getting confident enough to play around, sometimes more successfully than others, I admit, but by that stage I was so hooked I was always willing to follow along.

  4. Kidnapped was my absolutely favourite book as a child, right up until I collided with The Lord of the Rings, and I still love it. But then, I might almost qualify as a Stevenson groupie – he never wrote a word I didn’t like.

    • I did like it but not as much as Treasure Island. And for adventure stories, I still prefer Rider Haggard to Stevenson, but I’ve loved the few horror stories of his that I’ve read. I’ll definitely be trying to fit in more of him…

  5. I haven’t read any of these! So glad you mentioned this book. I remember noting a television series with Dalziel and Pascoe. But for some reason I never got around to watching it. So now I need the books and the series in my life.

    • The series was very good though, as often happens, it gradually began to be less and less like the books as it went along. Partly because the woman who played Pascoe’s wife Elly left the series, whereas she stays as a major character in the books. Also Hill brought in younger detectives in the later books, but the series remained focused on its stars, not surprisingly. So you need to do both – read all the books and watch all the series! 😉

  6. That is a very favorable review of the writing of Reginald Hill; and even though I do not read much in the way of mysteries or crime fiction now, I might actually try one of these, perhaps On Beulah Heights, since it may actually be your all-time favourite crime novel, which I am sure takes in a wide terrain. My mother and I used to share many mysteries; she would find them and read them, and then recommend a few to me. I wonder if she would have heard of Hill’s stories, probably not. I wish that she were still here for me to recommend one of these to her.

    • These are definitely superior to a lot of modern crime fiction in terms of the writing. Hill could easily have written literary fiction if he’d chosen and by the end of the series I often felt he was in reality. On Beulah Height is the book where I first began to think he was crossing the genre line, and it’s a pretty dark, harrowing storyline. The very early books are much more standard police procedural stuff and the later ones become very playful – I don’t know that they’d work so well as standalones for newcomers – I think you’d have to already love his characters and writing to really go along with them. But On Beulah Height works as a standalone, I think. I tried to talk my own mother into these but she never really enjoyed them – she wasn’t really a crime fiction fan, and occasionally Hill uses some fairly strong language, which I don’t like, but my mother really hated. He does use it in context though, not randomly. In fact, I don’t think he ever used any word randomly…

  7. I’ve only started reading crime fiction recently, so I’m not familiar with Reginald Hill. Happily, I’ve restructured my queue so that it can hold many, many more authors/titles without becoming a mess. It seems fitting that this is the first review I’ve read since reorganizing; if I like Hill’s writing style, I have many new books in front of me!

    So glad to see you are reading The Shapeshifters… I haven’t decided whether I want to read it or not and will let your review be the deciding factor. The premise sounds promising, but I can see the book going either way.

    • Wow! I’m impressed! I wish I could think of a way to restructure mine! Hill’s style really developed and grew all the way through the series. The first few are fairly standard police procedurals but as he got into his stride they became much more than that and by the end some of them really were nearer to lit-fic than crime. Partly it was the fact that you never knew what you were going to get from him that made him so special – one would be dark and traumatic and the next would be a lovely fun concoction full of wit and humour. I hope you enjoy them!

      I’m about two-thirds of the way through and it’s definitely good, but I think that last third is going to be crucial in deciding which way it goes…

    • Yes, a couple of people are asking for recs – did you feel On Beulah Height worked OK as a standalone, or did you feel you were missing something by not having read the earlier ones? It’s sometimes hard when you’ve read a whole series to know whether they work as singles…

      • No, I was pretty captivated by it and was happy to come in the middle. Though I’m sure you would have got more if you knew all the relationships and back stories, for me it was a case of not knowing that I was missing anything, rather than feeling I was missing something!

        • That’s good to know. I know I didn’t read them in order in the early days, but by the time of On Beulah Height I was getting them as they were released.

  8. Sounds like something I need to put on my TBR list, FF! What a splendid review — Mr. Hill would’ve been pleased, I think. I love his dedication, especially the part about not eating if folks don’t keep buying! And I admire his refusal to turn out book after (dreadful) book, year after (short) year — what a nightmare that must be! Much better, I think, to have anticipation building among your eager fans!!

    • Thnaks, Debbie! 😀 Yes, these ones come highly recommended. I love the dedication too – it really sums up what I always felt was the relationship he’d developed with his fans. You always felt when he went off on one of his more playful jaunts that he trusted you to be able to go along with him and share his love of games and words. And it’s a lovely feeling when an author trusts his readers…

  9. The only Reginald Hill book I’ve read is On Beulah Height and I totally enjoyed it. Meant to read more, but…well, one day. I did like both Dalziel and Pascoe. I rarely read out of order or sample in the middle of a series, but my mystery group read On Beulah Height and also one of Peter Robinson’s books, In A Dry Season. Both the books had secrets revealed when a reservoir was drained. I enjoyed this post!

    • Thanks Kay! 🙂 I’m glad you liked On Beulah Height – I even love the name of the book! If you liked that one, I definitely think this is a series you would enjoy. I envy you actually – I wish I hadn’t read them so I could have the pleasure of reading them all for the first time! The early ones up to Beula Height stand alone I think, but after that reading in order becomes more important since he brings in a couple of recurring characters and stroylines. His Joe Sixsmith series is great too – and much shorter!

    • No, not gruesome! And I don’t think there’s a single autopsy scene in the entire series. They’re more mystery than thriller but with a touch of lit-fic. If you do get around to trying them sometime, I hope you enjoy! 🙂

  10. Like you I was a huge Reginald Hill fan and luckily because I didn’t read the ones that weren’t in stock at the library when I discovered him I think there are still some still to discover, including this one! I don’t think I have a favourite, as you say there was always something to discover and he was such a clever writer that this is one series where I have quite happily re-read them over the years.

    • I used to re-read them constantly but in the last few years just haven’t had time – must change that! The other stories in this book are fun too – especially the one that gives it its title – when Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the first murder on the Moon…

    • Thank you! And thanks for popping by and commenting. 🙂 This really is one of the great series – if you get a chance to read any of them, I hope you enjoy!

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