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Sam Connon had been a rising star destined one day to play rugby for England, when his career was thrown off track by an injury. Still fit to play, though not at the top levels, he was a stalwart of the local rugby team in Mid Yorkshire, and still turns out occasionally for the fourth team – the old-timers whose glory days are behind them. On this afternoon, he has had a kick in the head during a scrum, which has left him feeling woozy and sick. So when he returns home, he merely pops his head into the living-room to let his wife know he’s home and then goes straight to bed, where he falls into something approaching unconsciousness for several hours. His wife hadn’t acknowledged his greeting but that wasn’t too unusual – their marriage was rocky, at best. But when he comes downstairs again, he discovers she is dead, with a circular hole in the middle of her forehead…
This is the first book in the long-running Dalziel and Pascoe series – my favourite crime series of all time. I originally started, as so often, in the middle of the series and then backtracked to the earlier books. And I’m rather glad I did, because although this one is a good, solid police procedural it’s nowhere near the standard that Hill reached as the series evolved. Both Andy Dalziel and Pete Pascoe have some of the attributes that make them such a memorable pairing, but they’re not yet fully developed. Andy is as brash and uncouth as he will always be, without yet the depth of characterisation that reveals the intelligence, subtlety and loyalty to his junior colleagues that is seen in later books. Pete, still single, spends much of his time having a rather annoying internal monologue, partly about the attractions of the various women he meets in the course of the investigation, and partly about his resentment and reluctant admiration for his boorish boss.
The plotting is very good as, of course, is the writing. First published in 1970, the book shows its age in Hill’s depiction of most of the women as sexual temptresses – surprising for someone who went on to write one of the most intriguingly feminist characters in crime fiction in Elly, Pete’s future wife. I guess that as a debut writer, Hill may have been trying to conform to what was then the norm, whereas he soon became a leader in the field, showing the way in including strong female and even empathetic gay characters long before the trailing pack would have dared. However, Connon’s daughter Jenny feels almost like an embryonic Elly, giving a hint of his later style in depicting women as intelligent, witty and, above all, equal to his male characters. Jenny’s boyfriend, Anthony, is the first example of another ‘type’ that appears regularly throughout the series in different personas – decidedly straight men but with slightly effeminate traits, intellectual and rather urbane, with a love of words. I have always wondered how much these characters might have been autobiographical.
The plot is interesting and quite traditional in format – all of the action centres around the rugby club so there is a defined list of suspects all with various motives. Andy, as a leading figure both in the club and in Mid Yorks life, knows everybody and this gives him access to ‘inside information’. Pete worries that Andy is too close to the people involved and doesn’t yet know him well enough to be sure that he won’t let his actions and opinions be swayed by friendship. But true to his later characterisation, Andy believes in justice above all, though he might step outside the bounds occasionally to achieve it. And the solution when it comes gives hints of the complex morality of the criminals Hill will introduce us to in future years.
To be honest, if I were reading this for the first time with no knowledge of the series, I’d probably be saying it’s a promising debut, better written than most but fairly standard otherwise. And I might or might not have gone on to read the next one. So when I highly recommend it, as I am doing, it’s as the first step in what becomes something exceptional further down the line. A series to be read in its entirety, and though not essential to read them in order, best read that way to see how all three of them – Dalziel and Pascoe, and Hill himself – develop as the years go by.