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)