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…
The Last National Service Man
by Reginald Hill
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.
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.
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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ (It’s not a mystery)
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀