A Pinch of Snuff (Dalziel and Pascoe 5) by Reginald Hill

Dark secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There have been complaints from the local residents about the Calliope Club, a private cinema that shows pornographic films, so the local police in the person of Sergeant Wield are already keeping an eye on it. However, everything is perfectly legal and the only disruption the club is causing is to the respectable sensibilities of its neighbours. But Jack Shorter, one of the club members, is worried, and since he happens to be Inspector Peter Pascoe’s dentist, he takes the opportunity to pass on his concerns. He tells Peter that in one scene of a film, in which the naked heroine is being beaten up her equally naked captor, he is convinced that the beating is real and that the woman has been seriously hurt, if not worse. So Peter goes along to see for himself, starting a chain of events that will uncover some dark secrets around the town and lead to murder…

By the time of this fifth Dalziel and Pascoe book, both of the main characters have become much more fully developed, although they will continue to evolve throughout the long-running series. Dalziel is brash, crude and often uncouth, although he’s perfectly capable of presenting different faces when he wishes. He knows everyone who’s anyone around his patch, and is well tuned in to all the gossip and secrets of his fellow townspeople. Pascoe is educated and cultured, more empathetic and often deeply affected by the things he witnesses as part of his job. He is the modern face of policing, although that modernity of 1978 when the book was first published seems very out-dated now, especially in social attitudes. Because this story involves porn, violence towards women and what would now be considered child exploitation at best, or child abuse at worst, those outdated attitudes make for uneasy reading to modern eyes. If you find it difficult to allow for different times, then this may not be the best book in which to meet Dalziel and Pascoe for the first time.

However, if you can look past that, then there’s a strong plot here – tighter and better paced than in some of the earliest books. The storyline is undoubtedly dark, but there’s plenty of room for some humour in the interaction between the two leads. Hill tended to change the main viewpoint from book to book, and here we see the story from Peter’s perspective, which is a kinder and gentler one than Dalziel’s. The starting point of the story – the suggestion of ‘snuff’ movies, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real – soon veers off to become more domestic in nature, as Jack Shorter is suddenly accused of seducing one of his underage patients. Meantime, the owner of the Calliope Club is attacked and left to die, and Peter must try to find out if there’s a connection to his investigation into the possible snuff movie. With all the concentration on porn, there are some salacious moments and some earthy language but no graphic descriptions of sex, on or off screen.

As the series progressed, the books gradually widened out from the two main detectives to become more ensemble pieces with several recurring characters. That process is beginning in this one, as we get to know Ellie, Peter’s wife, a little better. She’s a feminist and what we would now call a social justice warrior, so there’s always tension between Peter and her over his job, since she sees the police as a reactionary pillar of a patriarchal society. Sergeant Wield is also coming to the fore, although at this early point in the series, he is almost unrecognisable as the complex and appealing character he will later become.

Reginald Hill

Going back and reading these books in order has made me realise just how much the characters developed and changed over time – a reflection, I suspect, of Hill’s own development as well as of the changes in society during the decades in which he was writing. It’s quite hard to realise it now, but in fact at the time these books were at the forefront of the social changes, with Hill addressing subjects like feminism and homosexuality at a time when they were rare indeed in crime fiction. The way he does it sometimes seems clumsy to us now, with our heightened sensitivity and demand for strict adherence to the rules of liberal political correctness, but the underlying messages are positive ones for those who can see past the blunter style of expression of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pascoe is already learning to be more sensitive, partly through Ellie’s influence, and later in the series even Andy Dalziel will show he’s not as dinosaurish as he likes to appear.

While there are still a few books to go before Hill hit his peak, this one feels to me like a bit of a turning point, with indications of how the series would later develop, especially in the characterisation. As always, this series is highly recommended!

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35 thoughts on “A Pinch of Snuff (Dalziel and Pascoe 5) by Reginald Hill

  1. To me, a Hill novel is never a disappointment, FictionFan. It’s true that the attitudes here wouldn’t sit well today, but there is that solid plot. And I think you’ve hit on one of the best things about the series: The characters grow and develop over time, so following the series means you get to really know them quite well. I need to re-read some of these novels; I think that every time I read one of your reviews of them…

    • I love them all too, Margot, but I know some newcomers to his stuff might be a bit taken aback by some of the attitudes even though he was pretty forward thinking at the time. I’m thoroughly enjoying re-reading them in order and seeing that character development as it happened. But at the rate I’m going it’ll be another 15 years before I get to the end… 😉

  2. I seldom have a problem reading about attitudes that were acceptable (whether abhorrent or not) at the time they were written, just as I can separate fact from fiction when reading or watching films. I’ve never read anything by this author and I think it sounds like quite a good story!

    • Nor me, so long as they were acceptable at the time as you say, but I always feel I have to let people know since lots of people seem to really struggle with outdated attitudes. Since I love Victorian literature and stories about colonialism I can’t afford to get too sensitive! I love this series – my favourite crime series of all time, and they mostly work fine as standalones, so if the plot of this one appeals, then you could easily jump in without reading the earlier ones first… 😀

    • I love the TV Midsomer Murders, but wasn’t so keen on the one book of the series I’ve read, so decided not to read more in case it put me off. With Dalziel and Pascoe, I thought the first couple of TV series were pretty close to the books but then they began to diverge and because I love the books so much, the changes they made annoyed me. The books are better… you should definitely read them… 😉

  3. I learned about this series through your blog, and agree that this is a good series, though I haven’t read this one; after my time as a juror on cases like those described in this book, I couldn’t take hearing more about the porn industry,

    • Oh, that must have been rough! I can see why it would put you off. The good thing about this series though is that they mostly work as standalones, so missing a few is never a problem. I like this one, but it is darker than some of his other plots.

  4. I always find long series a bit of a dilemma. It feels too extensive to start from the beginning and go through the whole series. Diving in somewhere in the middle will often provide a higher quality mystery, but without the background of the characters and their development, which are some of the features I really like about series.

    One way or the other, I suppose I will make the acquaintance of Dalziel & Pascoe some time in the future.

    • Ha! I know exactly what you mean. I want to read Ann Cleeves’ two major series, but just can’t see me ever catching up with them. With this one, although the characters do develop over time, the books mostly work as standalones (except for a couple at the very end, which really rely on you knowing things that happened in earlier books). The first time I read them I started round about book 8, I think, and then gradually caught up with the earlier ones while reading all the new ones as they came out, and it worked fine. This is the first time I’ve tried reading them in order, and I’m enjoying it but it’s not necessary. Did I mention it’s my favourite series of all time… 😉 😀

      • I’m in exactly the same position with Cleeves. I was put off reading her when the series were newer by what I still consider a very poor television series and now feel it’s really too late to start without having to go through what are likely to be weaker earlier outings.

        • When I was younger I had no problem with reading series in random order, but an awful lot of series now have a running story arc in the background which makes it harder to just jump in. I suppose it promotes reader loyalty, but I suspect it also puts a lot of readers off. Another commenter has left a message saying that the Vera books can be read as standalones, so I might just plunge in halfway through and see how it goes…

      • Alright, you do make a good case 😀. I will probably select one at random and see how I get on. You should perhaps consider the same with Ann Cleeves? Did I mention she is one of my favourite crime writers? 😉. Her Shetland series is fairly consistent throughout, so it is fine to start with the first book. The Vera series needed a bit of a warm-up, but overall I prefer Vera to Shetland. My introduction to Vera was the third book in the series which was absolutely fine. They do work on a stand-alone basis. Don’t know if that was helpful, but I hope you manage to read an Ann Cleeves novel at some point.

        • I hope you enjoy whichever one you go for! I feel Ann Cleeves and I are probably made for each other, which is why it’s so annoying that I keep putting her off! I did read the first in the Shetland series a year or so ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think I have a couple of her other books on the TBR – the first Vera, I think, and another Shetland. And I went mad and got her new one from NetGalley – apparently it’s the first book in a new series, so at least I’ll get in at the start for once! Thanks for the advice – I’ll stop worrying about the order for the Vera books then, and just pick up any I come across. And then it’s just a matter of finding time to read them… 😉

  5. If it’s your favorite series of all time (I see above) then I can’t miss it. I’m wondering if I’ve already picked one up thanks to you? I hope? Lovely review and you’ve definitely enticed me.

    You would be proud. I’m doing a massive book purging and trying my best to remove the books from the stairs where they’ve been lazing. I have made more room for shelves in my house in order to compensate. 😂

    • I think it’s a while since I last reviewed one so it might have been before we met. Thank you! I do love this series – for years it was one of those ones that I got each new one on the day it came out, and took a day off work so I could read it!

      Hahaha! Well done!! But you know that as soon as you clear a space you’ll just start thinking of how many more books you could get to fill it… 😂

  6. I suspect the only time i’ll ever read about these books is through your blog FF, but I so appreciate you bringing to light these crime series, especially as a Canadian, I would miss hearing about all these amazing authors! Interesting how he brought up these issues at that time, although authors tend to be very adept at reading between the lines in society, don’t they?

    • Ah, I’m not giving up that easily! There’s another seventeen in the series so I’ll have you brainwashed long before I get to the end! 😉 Yes, they do, but Hill really was at the forefront in his day, especially when he introduced an openly gay detective into the team and portrayed him very positively. I know that’s commonplace now but it wasn’t back in those dark ages!

    • Thank you! 😀 This really isn’t a series that needs to be read in order, not until towards the end anyway when he began to reference earlier books. Most of them work fine as standalones. Hmm… I might do a post at some point of five or so that I think would work on their own… a series of 22 is very off-putting, I know…

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