A CLUBBABLE WOMAN (1970) by Reginald Hill

It was a year ago that I published my first book review here.  I am glad to note that, 140 posts later, I am still enjoying it, greatly. So, without untoward dilly dallying  …

Reginald Hill was still working as a teacher during his first decade as a novelist, publishing at a rate of two books a year under several names. But these were not potboilers or hurried examples of ‘left hand work’ but crime novels displaying erudition, a sharp wit and perhaps that most desirable of elements in the alchemy of popular genre writing: the ability to integrate convincing and unusual characters with strong plot and themes. This is clear even from the challenging title of his publishing debut, A Clubbable Woman (1970), which introduced his best-known characters, Dalziel and Pascoe.

“Superintendent Andrew Dalziel was a big man. When he took his jacket off and dropped it over the back of a chair it was like a Bedouin pitching camp.”

Andrew “Fat Andy” Dalziel (pronounced ‘dee-ell’) is a Superintendent in the West Yorkshire CID and Peter Pascoe is his new sergeant. Something of an ‘odd couple’, Andy (also known as ‘Bruiser) is coarse, blunt and unreconstructed while his bright and University-educated junior is more discreet and intellectual. But there is more to this pairing than a simple contrasting of opposites – while we are invited to share Pascoe’s disquiet over his boss’ sledgehammer tactics throughout the book, we also see his acknowledgement that the man is more often than not right and that the methods frequently obtain good results.

Dalziel is very much on home turf in this debut, the crime and the investigation centering around the local rugby club of which he is a long-established member (Pascoe of course is a soccer man). Sam ‘Connie’ Connon was once the star player, but a hurried marriage to popular and much lusted-after local girl Mary, followed thereafter by an even more hurried fatherhood, and an ankle injury, curtail his sporting career. Still haunted by dreams of escape (symbolised by a desire for the empty desert vistas he experienced while on his army service), he is now a manager and has moved up the social ladder. With his daughter Jenny now at University and Mary refusing to go to watch the Rugby games anymore, he goes to the club on his own. One afternoon he is prevailed upon to help out during a game but gets injured in a scrum and goes home feeling dizzy and passes out in bed while Mary watches the TV. He later phones the police to say that on awakening he found that she had been bashed, or clubbed, to death with an unknown instrument. During the investigation it emerges that various people are jealous or resentful of Connie, from his gossiping neighbour to club member Arthur Evans, who is the one who literally put the ‘boot in’ during the scrum to punish the man he believes has been having an affair with his voluptuous wife Gwen, who seems to have replaced Mary as the Club’s most alluring female. But is Connie at fault? And who is sending him poison pen letters suggesting he is not Jenny’s natural father. And why is the allure of Gwen so central to the case?

“All the best fictional detectives do it. Have long thinks, I mean.” – Dalziel

Were it not for the references to pre-decimal shillings and to Dalziel reaching for his hat, it would not be obvious that we are reading a book written well over forty years ago. This is largely because topical and pop culture references are completely absent, the focus firmly on the dynamics of the club and Connie’s friends and neighbours. Indeed this is a book in which getting to know the character of the victim, who we never meet ‘live’ as it were, is one of the highlights as Hill regularly takes us into the mind of his characters. He  reveals the expected mixture of hidden passions and frustrations as well as darker desires, vividly exploring the unexplained longing that can spring from a deep-rooted sense disappointment. The investigating duo, to be memorably joined later in the series by DS Wield, are treated the same way as the other characters and get about the same amount of space in the book. It has been suggested that they may not in fact have been envisaged originally as the main characters of a series at all. While the characters would change and become even more sharply defined later on, here we find out that Pascoe is 29 and single and not too happy about it while Dalziel was left years earlier by his wife in a manner that is then reflected in late developments in the story, though we are left to speculate if this has provided him with any special insight into the case as a result. The attitudes to women on display are not especially enlightened but always highly believable and Hill proves highly adept at creating women characters that are strong, varied and independent.

The case quickly goes cold as we get nearer to Christmas, which is balefully described here as, “… the greatest money-spending competition on earth.” Eventually though, when a boy briefly goes missing and the police start door-to-door canvassing, Dalziel and Pascoe manage to crack the case and the wall of silence that the men and women of the club have built around themselves. The solution,  when it comes, may not come as a stunning surprise but it has a fine irony to it as it once again contrasts the role played by the club with life at home, with unexpected allegiances appearing right to the end.

In 1996 the book was adapted by the late Alan Plater for TV with commendable fidelity and led to a series that ran for over 10 years. This may, oddly perhaps, have been why I stopped reading the books in the 90s. The TV version, for me, took its place in a way, even though they stopped adapting the books after a while and created original stories instead, with middling results sometimes, it has to be said. Warren Clarke however was perfectly cast as Dalziel, though it is probably worth recalling that he was not the first actor to play the role.  The detective duo first appeared onscreen in A Pinch of Snuff (1994), a three-part ITV serial adapted by Robin Chapman that is generally considered a bit of a disaster as it was used to launch the dramatic careers of comedy duo Hale and Pace. It didn’t work though it was an honourable failure and not as poor as many might now think (Hill hated it apparently). The BBC TV adaptation of this novel is easily available on DVD in a set with two other adaptations forming series 1 and I highly recommend it. The book is also available on at least two audiobooks, though I have not listened to either. One is read by Clarke, but is abridged, and published on CD by HarperCollins; another is performed by the late great Brian Glover (he played Lugg to Peter Davison’s Albert Campion on TV) and available from AudioGo, either on CD or download. To order it click here.

It’s been a real pleasure to go back to Hill and I certainly plan to read (or re-read) a lot more of his work in the future. And amongst his extensive output there are two dozen Dalziel & Pascoe books, thankfully all in print or very easy to find …

Dalziel & Pascoe bibliography

  • A Clubbable Woman (1970)
  • An Advancement of Learning (1971)
  • Ruling Passion (1973)
  • An April Shroud (1975)
  • A Pinch of Snuff (1978)
  • A Killing Kindness (1980)
  • Deadheads (1983)
  • Exit Lines (1984)
  • Child’s Play (1987)
  • Under World (1988)
  • Bones and Silence (1990)
  • One Small Step (1990), novella
  • Recalled to Life (1992)
  • Pictures of Perfection (1994)
  • The Wood Beyond (1995)
  • Asking for the Moon (1996), short stories
  • On Beulah Height (1998)
  • Arms and the Women (1999)
  • Dialogues of the Dead (2002)
  • Death’s Jest-Book (2003)
  • Good Morning Midnight (2004)
  • The Death of Dalziel (2007)
  • A Cure for All Diseases (2008)
  • Midnight Fugue (2009)

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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17 Responses to A CLUBBABLE WOMAN (1970) by Reginald Hill

  1. curtis evans says:

    That Fontana paperback cover is awesome in a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” kind of way. I was just looking at Hill’s third, Ruling Passion. I was struck how the milieu wasn’t that different from late fifties John Rhode/Miles Burton village crime novels, except for the fact it’s made clear Pascoe and Ellie are sleeping together. I still find Ellie rather irritating too! It’s interesting to see how Hill went from solid but unremarkable to top of the line.

    • In re-reading the book I was fairly wrong-footed initially as I’d forgotten that Ellie wasn’t in it yet – which is probably the fault of the TV adaptation, where she was introduced right away, which makes sense for a TV series. Actually, the TV version, adapted by the late (great) Alan Plater opens with a scene not in Hill in hwich Dalziel reprimands Pascoe for being the only person on the force to ever pronounce his surname correctly on the first try – which could be a dull bit of exposition but is rendered highly amusing thanks to Plater’s wit. I’m going to make a rela effort to go through the series in chronological order if possible, though I do need to get back to my self-imposed McBain challenge soon too …

  2. curtis evans says:

    Checked the date on the Fontana, 1974. Very early seventies. Love the author’s name in purple to match our clubbable woman’s top (definitely the center of attention).

    • Hi Curtis, thanks very much for the great feedback and info. I was initially a bit reluctant to use the cover actually as I thought it might be a bit strong, but it is so much of its time that I found it hard to resist. And I hadn’t spotted the colour co-ordination! Just in case the trajectory of the sight-lines wasn’t already clear enough! The series did progress very distinctly as you say (and probably peaked in the 90s, though I want to revisit my opinions on this now) though I do think that Hill’s skills are well in evidence.

  3. Curt Evans says:

    Yes, he was a strong starter, but I would not necessarily have seen the full flowering of thirty years later, which was really something. I think his work of the last ten years flummoxed some of the fans. He was writing more to please himself, I think. I’ve been meaning to tackle A Cure for All Diseases, the Jane Austen email correspondence book that drove some fans batty.

    Yeah, I love the Fontana, so of the period. It’s almost as good as the Ellery Queen nudie covers from the late 60s/early70s (those are deliciously tacky).

    Interesting that Peter Lovesey’s first, Wobble to Death, appeared the same year and that Hill and Lovesey were born the same year.

    • I haven’t read A Cure for All Diseases and in fact none of my reading of Hill is from the last decade (for shame).

      You are absolutely right about the Ellery Queen covers and I cherish some of the Ross Macdonald paperback covers from Fontana of that time – considering how tame book covers are nowadays it feels like they got Richard Avedon to do them. Which is not to say that they were also highly exploitative and sexist, because they blatantly were. But when it’s that blatant it takes the edge off a bit, no matter how much it actually misrepresents the content. A lot of them are just photographic versions of the cover paintings of the 50s as celebrated by Jeff Pierce over at Killer Covers.

  4. Very nice tribute to Reginald Hill! I admire his ability to write about developing characters in a long-running series, but still keep the energy of the early books. Not many writers can pull that off.

    • Thanks very much George. My reading has been somewhat hap hazard over the years so I wanted to take the opportunity to start from the beginning, which I did with some trepidation to be honest, worried at what I would find. This made the impressive results even more welcome though. I have never read any of his pseudonymous works though so need to track some of the Ruell books down I think. No idea how easy or difficult that is.

  5. I used to see the Ruell books at Library book sales all the time. Now I wished I’d picked them up! Like you, I always try to read an author’s series chronologically. It’s always interesting to see the development of the characters and the changing themes.

  6. A well-written review, Sergio. I liked the line you quoted from his book right at the beginning. That’s some imagination and it conveys what he means to say in a simple and effective way. I haven’t got around to reading a Hill book since your last tribute to him but I hope to reverse that soon. He was probably the most prolific author of present times, having written his last Dalziel and Poscoe novel at the age of 73, three years before he passed away.

    • Thanks Prashant. Hill was definitely a cut above – if you read Mike Ripley’s obit you get a fascinating portrait of a funny and intelligent writer whose talent really grew as time went on. I really enjoyed going back to the book after a long while and will shift over to the next in the series next month hopefully and so on … But tomorrow it’s definitely back to the world of McBain’s 87th!

  7. Deb says:

    I loved Hill’s work prior to about 2003, but then I do think perhaps he lost interest in his characters or, possibly, he started trying out new methods of presenting the classic murder-mystery, which left some fans puzzled. It broke my heart that I couldn’t finish THE PRICE OF BUTCHER’S MEAT (which might be the American or alternate title of A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES) which went back and forth between intentionally-atrociously spelled email (made no less irritating by the fact that the misspelling and sloppy grammar were intentional on Hill’s part) and the recorded monologue of a surprisingly self-reflective Dalziel.

    • Hi Deb, thanks very much for that. That does seem to be the way of it so often with long-running series, specially ones that are not content to keep repeating a formula, though the danger of going too far outside it can be truly infuriating. I never did get round to reading the later ones but am determined to try and get there more or less in chronological order – I do get the impression that Hill did want to experiment with the form and from some of the talkback on this post I get the impression that you and many other fans were left either dissatisfied or mystefied (in the wrong way) by some of the approaches to the later books. I hope to be able to chart this progress though 2012 here on the blog with any luck …

  8. Bill says:

    Congratulations on your one year anniversary. I’ve only read one of Hill’s books but I couldn’t help wondering if the character Dalziel was inspired in any way by Sir Henry Merrivale.

    • Cheers Bill, that’s very kind of you. I must admit, that comparison had never occurred to me. ‘Fat Andy’ = ‘The Old Man’? Hill could certainly construct some very clever plots and understood the tradition without a doubt, though Dalziel is so much darker and rougher that I somehow doubt it was much of an inspiration. But it is such a fascinating idea! I am going on to the second in the series shortly and will definitely keep the comparison in mind and see if I can see more of a fit!

  9. Pingback: Review: A Clubbable Woman, by Reginald Hill | The Game's Afoot

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