Exit Lines (Dalziel and Pascoe 8) by Reginald Hill

Death in triplicate…

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On a stormy November night, three elderly men die: one, murdered in his home; one, while walking home, perhaps by accident, perhaps not; and the third, hit by a car as he rode home from the pub on his bicycle. While looking into the first, definite murder Pascoe finds himself gradually suspecting that the second case may also have been the result of a violent attack. But the third case is the most difficult, since there is a suspicion that Pascoe’s boss, Dalziel, may have been drunkenly driving the car that hit the man on the bike…

Hill must have been writing this around the time of the big debate in the UK over “care in the community” – whether the elderly, disabled and otherwise vulnerable should be de-institutionalised from hospitals and care homes, and be helped to live independently in their own homes. In truth, many were left to fend for themselves with only the support of family, if they had any. Hill uses his three old men to show various aspects of this debate, but with a light touch – he never gets too heavily into polemics, although his left-wing bias becomes more obvious throughout the Thatcher era. He shows us the loneliness of some elderly people, and also the stress placed on families trying to juggle jobs and children with caring for elderly relatives. But while the three men at the centre of the story are victims to one degree or another, Hill doesn’t paint the picture as all bleak – he shows us the ordinary kindnesses of people looking out for each other, whether family or strangers, and he shows the official care system as quite caring on the whole, unusually, since it often gets a very bad rap in fiction, probably far worse than it deserves.

Reginald Hill

All this is interesting, but I must admit this isn’t one of my favourites in the series. The three storylines are too much, leading to loads of characters in each case, and I often found myself struggling to remember which plotline each person belonged to. The storyline around Andy’s possible drunk driving is a bit messy too, I feel, though it’s interesting to see the other police officers struggling to avoid the appearance of a police cover-up, while staying loyal to one of their own. On top of all this, Pascoe’s wife Elly is worried about her father, who seems to be showing the first signs of dementia. I felt Hill was trying to cover too many aspects of what it is to be elderly and as a result rather lost focus on the plots.

However, even a weaker Hill is better than most other crime fiction, and there’s plenty to enjoy here. Pascoe is at centre stage, leading the investigations while Andy is on enforced leave. PC Hector provides the humour – good-hearted, but so slow on the uptake as to be almost half-witted. (Andy calls him one of “Maggie’s Morons” – I can’t remember for sure the relevance of this, but I’m guessing Thatcher increased police recruitment dramatically, and this maybe led to a perceived reduction in standards? It’s amazing how quickly cultural references date and are forgotten.) PC Seymour makes his first appearance too – unlike Hector he has all the signs of being a very good officer and of making his way up through the ranks in time, although in this one he’s distracted by his attraction to one of the witnesses, a young Irish waitress with a love of ballroom dancing. And as a nicely humorous touch, each chapter is headed by the real or apocryphal “famous last words” of a historical person, such as “I am just going outside and may be some time.” (Capt. Lawrence Oates) or “Bugger Bognor!” (George V, on being told by doctors he should go to the seaside town to recuperate).

Colin Buchanan

I listened to it this time, narrated by Colin Buchanan who played Peter Pascoe in the TV series. I have mixed feelings about his narration – I didn’t find it seriously hampered my enjoyment of the book, but I wasn’t keen on his interpretation of Dalziel, though his Wield and Pascoe are very good. He speaks far too fast for my taste and I was constantly finding myself jumping back a bit to pick up something I missed. And while I’m no expert on regional accents, I couldn’t help feeling that a lot of his Yorkshiremen sounded more like Geordies. I liked it enough, though, to go ahead and get the next one on audio – maybe he’ll win me over in time.

So a good read, even if it’s not quite up to the standards of the best in this excellent series. It would work as a standalone, but would probably be better appreciated by a reader who already knew the characters from the earlier books.

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Deadheads (Dalziel and Pascoe 7) by Reginald Hill

A thorny problem…

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Patrick Aldermann seems to lead a charmed life. Every time anyone gets in his way fate intervenes and they die. When Patrick’s boss, Dandy Dick Elgood, suggests that perhaps Patrick gives fate a hand, Dalziel hands the case over to Peter Pascoe. Peter will have to decide if there’s any truth to Elgood’s fears by looking back at some of the convenient deaths to see if there were any suspicious circumstances missed at the time. But this is complicated by the fact that Peter’s wife, Ellie, has struck up a promising new friendship with Daphne, Patrick’s wife. Dalziel has his own personal interest – once upon a time he tried to seduce Patrick’s mother…

By this stage in the series, Hill has hit his stride and the recurring characters have developed the depth and complexity that make them so enjoyable. Sometimes Hill concentrates more on one of his leads than the others, giving the bulk of the book over to either Dalziel or Pascoe, or later in the series, to Wield or even Ellie. In this one, Pascoe is the leading character, but it’s very much an ensemble piece, with each having their own story within the story, so to speak. We get to know Ellie better as we see her try to juggle between her friendship with Daphne and her loyalty to Peter. Always what we would now call a social justice warrior, her left-wing, anti-Establishment, feminist views sit uneasily beside her role as policeman’s wife, but she’s an independent-minded woman with enough of a sense of humour to cheerfully navigate the dilemmas in which she often finds herself.

There’s a new cadet attached to CID on a short training placement – young Shaheed Singh, known as Shady by his colleagues. I’ve said before that Hill in his day was at the forefront of addressing the changing face of British society in crime fiction. With Singh he gives a very credible picture of a young lad, Yorkshire born and bred, but treated always as different because of his skin colour and Asian heritage. Hill never takes any of the subjects he tackles to the extremes, be it gender, sexual orientation or race, and that’s why I love him – one of the reasons, anyway. Singh gets fed up with the racially-tinged jokes directed at him by his colleagues, but he recognises that they’re basically the result of casual thoughtlessness rather than any real attempt to hurt.

Patrick Aldermann is an intriguing potential villain. Having inherited Rosemont from his rich great-aunt – victim of one of the fortuitous deaths that ease his path through life – Patrick is devoted to his huge garden. He seems to love his wife and children too, though perhaps with less passion than the roses on which he spends all his spare time and money. Could this apparently good-natured if rather emotionally undemonstrative man really be responsible for the murders of several people? Or is it all simply coincidence? As Peter investigates, he stirs up some murky secrets but they merely add to the confusion around Patrick’s guilt or innocence.

Reginald Hill

Meantime, CID are also investigating a spate of burglaries in the area, while Dalziel is off to London for a conference on community policing in mixed societies, giving us the opportunity to hear some of his un-correct but very funny views on political correctness! So Peter and Wieldy have their hands full, even without this case that might not be a case at all.

Another excellent instalment in this series, with one of Hill’s more playful plots. I’m always a bit reluctant to recommend reading this series in strict order, since I do think the first two or three have dated rather badly and might be a bit off-putting to newcomers. But these middle books would all make good entry points – although the character development is important, each of the books at this stage of the series works fine as a stand-alone (which is not true of some of the later books). Highly recommended, book and series both.

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A Killing Kindness (Dalziel and Pascoe 6) by Reginald Hill

To thine own self be true…

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When Sergeant Wield visits the mother of murder victim Brenda Sorby, he finds that Mrs Sorby has called in gypsy clairvoyant Rosetta Stanhope to try to contact her dead daughter. Politely, Wield listens in, but when the local press get hold of the story it is blown up as the police having called in a psychic because they’re baffled, and Superintendent Dalziel is not pleased! The press have a point, though – Brenda is the third apparent victim of the murderer the press have dubbed the Choker and the police are indeed baffled. There seems no obvious connection between the victims, and while the first two were carefully laid out by the murderer, poor Brenda was found dumped in the local canal. However, all three women were strangled, and after each murder the local paper received an anonymous phonecall quoting a line from Hamlet. Then, as Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield search for leads, a fourth murder takes place…

The thing I love about this series is how it evolves over time, both in terms of the recurring characters, and in the quality of the plotting. This one dates from 1980, a full decade after the first book and a decade that saw the beginning of lots of changes in social attitudes. Hill could have simply changed the characters of his two leads as many writers tried to do with varying degrees of success. But instead he allows them to grow and adapt. At this point, Dalziel remains the rude, boorish, foul-mouthed dinosaur, but Pascoe, now married to the feminist Ellie, has matured into a semi-decent bloke, who might still expect his dinner to be on the table when he gets home but isn’t too put out when it’s left for him in the oven instead, while Ellie is off out with her feminist friends. For the early ‘80s, this almost counted as being a New Man! Even Dalziel will gradually reveal that most of his boorishness is an act and that he might be even more advanced than Pascoe in his heart. Dalziel doesn’t care if his officers are male or female, gay or straight, white or black – he’s equally rude and offensive to them all, but they can count on his total support should anyone else try to mess with them.

Having brought Ellie in a few books earlier to counterbalance the sexism and boost the feminist angle, in this one Hill brings Wieldy to the fore. I can’t say definitively that Wield is the first sympathetic depiction of a gay policeman in mainstream British crime fiction, but he’s certainly the first I came across and it was pretty astounding at the time. Especially since the portrayal of him is so good – not in any way stereotyped, not suggesting that being gay makes him weak or feminine or “perverted” or any of the other negative characteristics that fictional gay people were so often given at that period. Wield is a normal guy who happens to be gay. For younger people used to that kind of portrayal of gay people, it’s hard to explain how revolutionary it seemed back in the day. And the joy is that Wieldy is so easy to like! Again, I have no evidence that Wield changed perceptions of homosexuality in Hill’s readership but I’d be amazed if he didn’t. He’s one example of the way Hill constantly pushed at the boundaries, but subtly and with warmth and humour, rather than beating the reader over the head with polemics and “messages”.

Reginald Hill

The plot in this one is excellent – probably the first in the series where I felt Hill got it completely right. It’s complex and convincing, and dark. While it involves the murder of young women, it avoids the salaciousness and voyeurism that often accompanies that, and the killer’s motivation is original. I’m desperately trying to avoid anything which could be a spoiler, so I’ll simply say that the motivation aspect gives the book the psychological depth that became a trademark of Hill’s work as the series developed. That’s what makes Dalziel and Pascoe such a good team – Dalziel knows how to bully evidence out of the unwilling, but Pascoe knows how to use empathy and understanding to tease out the reason for the crimes.

When I first read this series, it was around this book that I first joined in and I must say I’d recommend it as a good starting point to people coming to the series fresh. While all the books are readable, there’s no doubt the very early ones feel a little dated now, and not as polished, whereas this one stands up very well to modern eyes, I think. I found that I was more forgiving of the sexism in the earlier ones when I backtracked to them after learning to love the characters once they had become more developed, and from this point on the series just gets better and better. There are twenty-four of them in total, so if you haven’t already read them, you really ought to make a start soon – they get my highest recommendation!

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

Dark secrets…

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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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An April Shroud (Dalziel and Pascoe 4) by Reginald Hill

In which Dalziel becomes human…

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Following newly-minted-Inspector Peter Pascoe’s wedding to Ellie Soper, Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel sets off on a little holiday. His plan is to drive around the countryside hoping to find enough of interest to keep him occupied, but in reality he’s feeling a little lost and even lonely. Peter’s wedding has brought home to him his own lack of family, and he’s reached as high as he’s likely to go in his career. But his plans are put on hold when April showers turn into a veritable flood and his car becomes waterlogged. Rescued by a family returning from a funeral, he goes with them to their home, Lake House, to dry off and phone a garage. But the combination of an intriguing death in the family and the friendly charms of the remarkably cheerful widow persuade him to prolong his visit…

One of the things that always kept this series fresh was that Hill regularly changed the focus among the various characters. In this one, Andy gets his first solo outing. Peter makes token appearances at the beginning and end but plays no real part in the story. This gives Hill the chance to let the reader get to know Andy from the inside – prior to this we’d really always seen him through someone else’s eyes, usually Peter’s.

Although I grew very fond of all the major characters – Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, Novello – Dalziel was always the one I enjoyed most. He’s such an intriguing mix of brash, uncouth Yorkshireman – a big, loud, crude, bullying brute of a man – and well-hidden sensitivity: a man who might use blatantly offensive homophobic terms, but will defend his gay colleagues at a time when that was highly unusual; who can be hideously sexist in the language he uses to women, but who respects their intelligence and strength far more than many of his politically correct colleagues; who is no respecter of class, but who uses his own mostly artificial veneer of uncultured boorishness as a blunt weapon to dominate any company he’s in, from the rugby club to the manor house.

This is the book where we really begin to see him as more than a caricature. As he finds himself drawn towards the widow, Bonnie, he gets sucked into a moral quagmire largely of his own making. The police have investigated the death of Conrad Fielding and have reluctantly concluded it was an accident, despite the fact that the insurance claim on his death will come in very handy for the rest of the household. Lake House is costly to live in and too run-down to let, so the family have come up with a scheme to convert part of it into a mock-Medieval Banqueting Hall. But funding has run out and bankruptcy looms unless the insurance money comes through in time for them to finish the work on the place before the scheduled opening in a couple of weeks’ time. As Andy gets to know the family better, he has to decide whether to share what he learns about them with the local police or keep his suspicions to himself. It’s not as if he knows anything for sure…

Reginald Hill

Hill also has fun with the characters in the house, from the elderly poet Hereward, about to be given an award he feels he should have been given years ago when young enough to enjoy it, to the budding film-maker who augments his income by taking the kind of girlie photos that show up in the less respectable kind of magazine, to the Woosterish young man who wants nothing more than to punt on the lake, shooting ducks. The widow herself is a typically wonderful Hill woman – strong, intelligent, generous, quite possibly wicked, definitely ambiguous. A Yorkshire femme fatale. Is she attracted to Andy for his innate charm and manly physique? Even Andy is doubtful about that. Or is she using him as protection from the interest of the local police?

The mystery itself becomes more complicated when more bodies begin to show up in unexpected places. Accidents? Murders? Connected or coincidental? Andy will eventually work it all out, but then he’ll still have to decide what to do about it. And meantime, the inaugural Medieval Banquet grows ever closer…

Lots of humour as always, but in this one Hill gives us the first real indication of how the series will develop in terms of depth of characterisation and the complicated relationship between our two main players, Dalziel and Pascoe. And in this one, for the first time, we begin to see that Andy is human too, with all the vulnerabilities and sensitivities he so successfully hides from the world. As always, highly recommended – the best detective series of all time!

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Ruling Passion (Dalziel and Pascoe 3) by Reginald Hill

ruling passionTragedy at Thornton Lacey…

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Peter Pascoe and his girlfriend, Ellie Soper, are off for a weekend break to visit old university friends now living in the village of Thornton Lacey. But when they get there, they are met with tragedy – three of their friends lie dead from shotgun wounds and the fourth, Colin, is missing. Not surprisingly, Colin immediately becomes the chief suspect, but neither Peter nor Ellie can bring themselves to believe he could have done such a horrific thing. Meantime, back in Mid-Yorkshire, Dalziel wants Peter back as soon as possible, since they are in the middle of a major investigation of a string of burglaries that seems to be escalating into violence.

First published in 1973, this is the third book in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and shows a big leap in the development of some of the characters. Pascoe has changed out of all recognition from the rather commonplace young man of the first book. He’s now showing the intelligence and sensitivity that make him such an enjoyable character, both in his own right and as a contrast to the brash and arrogant Dalziel. Dalziel still has some way to go in terms of development – he’s still not quite the larger than life figure he will become. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing in his character so far, but am looking forward to spotting it as the series progresses. I think it may be his touch of omniscience, or that he hasn’t quite fully become the ‘big fish in a small pond’ of later books.

Ellie, too, has developed a good deal from the last book, but is also not yet fully the Ellie of the middle and later ones. With her character, Hill gets away from the, to modern eyes, outdated portrayal of women as little more than sexual temptresses that he gave us in the first book. Ellie is a mixture of strength and softness – a feminist at a time when feminism hadn’t quite worked out what it wanted to be when it grew up. Volatile and feisty, politically on the left and therefore deeply ambivalent about Peter’s job in that tool of capitalist oppression, the police force, she often gives him a hard time. But deep down she knows he’s one of the good guys and agrees, though she might never say it, that his job is one that needs to be done, and is better done by honourable, intelligent men than by thugs like Dalziel (it’s the ’70s, chaps, so forgive the inbuilt sexism in that sentence – Hill will introduce women police detectives later). In this book, though, she also begins to get to know Dalziel better and starts the slow process of realising that maybe his thuggish exterior hides a more complex and nuanced morality than she’s ready to give him credit for.

Susannah Corbett and Colin Buchanan as Ellie and Peter in the BBC adaptation
Susannah Corbett and Colin Buchanan as Ellie and Peter
in the BBC adaptation

Pascoe’s relationship with Ellie and this trip back to his university days highlights his intellectual side, which in turns allows Hill to start what becomes a feature of later books – references, some subtle, some humorous, to the greats of English literature, especially Jane Austen. The title is from Pope and his poem Eloisa and Abelard plays a minor role in the plot. If you spotted that the name of the village comes from Ms Austen’s Mansfield Park, well done! Some of the characters’ names are also from Austen, often her juvenilia. If you like these sorts of references, it can be fun trying to spot them, or googling them; but, if the thought makes you go cross-eyed with boredom, I can reassure you that they’re completely incidental to enjoying the books. When I first read them, long, long, ago, I was unaware that Hill liked to play these games, never spotted them, and never felt that I was missing anything.

Reginald Hill
Reginald Hill

The plot in this one is deeply confusing with too many people playing minor parts and too much coincidence coming into play. I’m finding on this re-read that the plot tends to be the weakest part of each of the books so far. It’s always set up interestingly, as with this one in the triple murder scene, but somehow it tends to get a bit over complicated as the book progresses. However, it’s the quality of the writing and characterisation that lift even these early books above the average. There is always plenty of humour to offset the darkness of the storylines. Hill gives a believable picture of Ellie and Peter’s grief at the deaths of their friends, but without wallowing in it. And their growing relationship is handled beautifully, showing all the compromises that have to be made when two strong characters collide, but also the rewards that come in a partnership of real equals. This one works fine as a standalone, as they nearly all do, but I must say that reading them in order gives extra pleasure in seeing both the characters and Hill’s writing style develop as the series progresses.

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An Advancement of Learning (Dalziel and Pascoe 2) by Reginald Hill

an advancement of learningPolitics and orgies – the academic life…

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The staff and students of Holm Coultram College gather together to watch a statue of a giant bronze nude be lifted from its present site on the college lawn to make way for a new building. Feelings are running high in some quarters, since the statue is a singularly inappropriate memorial to the late lamented head of the college, Alison Girling, killed some years ago in a freak avalanche while on holiday in Austria. But things are about to take a dark turn. As the plinth is raised into the air and the earth falls away from beneath it, bones appear, first a shin-bone, then some ribs, and finally a skull complete with a shock of vivid red hair still attached…

This is the second outing for Andy Dalziel and Pete Pascoe, published in 1971. While there’s still some way to go before either of the characters become the fully rounded ones of the middle and late series, both have developed quite a bit from their first appearance in A Clubbable Woman. This time it’s Dalziel who’s out of his comfort zone, relying on Pascoe for insights into how the world of academia operates. Both characters are shown as more intelligent perhaps than in the first book, certainly more shrewd. Dalziel is showing his trademark technique of riding roughshod over anyone who makes the incorrect assumption that just because he’s a blunt Yorkshireman (though Scottish by birth, let’s not forget) then he must be thick. Pascoe is considerably more thoughtful in this one, less rough around the edges, beginning to show that softer more intellectual side which develops as the series progresses. Yes, it’s still the early ’70s, so there is still a little too much emphasis on women being judged primarily by the size of their breasts, but on the whole I felt the females were considerably more nuanced in this one – not all voracious man-hunters, or at least, not solely!

The blurb of my copy of the book, an early printing, suggests that Pascoe is the focus of the series, which I found interesting since I would always say that Dalziel is the dominant character, though it’s always a duo rather than a one-man-band. It’s true that most of the books are mainly written from Pascoe’s viewpoint, but Dalziel is such a huge character that he’s always right there casting his shadow over whatever Pete might be looking at. In these early books, Dalziel and Pascoe are the only two central characters – the expanded team of the later books, with Sergeant Wield, PC Novella et al, haven’t yet been introduced. But in this one, we meet two characters who will reappear: Ellie Soper and Franny Roote. Ellie is an old girlfriend of Pete’s and it looks like the embers of their relationship might still be glowing. Ellie is already strong and feisty, but in terms of development, she has even further to travel than either Dalziel or Pascoe before becoming the excellent lead female character of later books.

Reginald Hill
Reginald Hill

Franny is one of Hill’s more intriguing characters, whom he will return to occasionally throughout the series. The head of the Student Union in this book, Franny is already showing the moral ambiguity that will become more pronounced each time he appears. Knowing more about him from the later books added a lot of interest to my re-read of this one – it becomes clear that Hill too found him intriguing in the writing of him, and felt that there was plenty more to explore. In fact, though all the characters continue to develop and change, Franny is perhaps the one who remains most consistent over the years. His story develops as time goes by, but the fundamental ambivalence surrounding his character is here already in this first appearance.

The plotting is complex and interesting, involving everything from departmental and student politics to orgies on the beach, though the final resoultion veers dangerously close to the old credibility line. But as always it’s the writing and characterisation that lifts this series so far above the average. Both Dalziel and Pascoe are great characters individually and the contrasts between them allow for some great humour, particularly in their dialogue. Hill is a master of allowing his characters to reveal themselves to the reader as they gradually learn to respect each other more…

“You’ve got specialized knowledge. Or think you have. Without being in a specialized job. You’ve got this… whatever it is…”
“Degree, sir,” said Pascoe helpfully.
“I know it’s a bloody degree. But in something, isn’t it?”
“Social sciences.”
“That’s it. Exactly. Which equips you to work well in…”
“Society, sir?”
“Instead of which you have to work in…”
“Society, sir?”
There was a long pause during which Dalziel looked at the sergeant more in sorrow than in anger.
“That’s what I mean,” he said finally. “You’re too bloody clever by half.”

A fine second book that’s left me even keener to get on with re-reading the rest.

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A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill

a clubbable woman 2A promising debut whose promise was fulfilled…

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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.

Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe in the BBC adaptation.
Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe in the BBC adaptation.

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.

Reginald Hill
Reginald Hill

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

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dalziel

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

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀