(Editor’s note: This is the 32nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Simon Wood, a British-born engineer turned Anthony Award-winning novelist, who now lives in California. He’s the author most recently of the thriller We All Fall Down.)
In 1970, newbie British crime writer Reginald Hill introduced the mystery community to mid-Yorkshire police detectives Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe with A Clubbable Woman. Over 20 Dalziel and Pascoe novels later, Hill is a giant in the British crime-writing world. In 1995, he received the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Crime Writers’ Association. But it all started with A Clubbable Woman.
In that book, a character named Connon returns home more than a little worse for wear after picking up a concussion from being kicked in the head during a rugby match. Connon tries to sleep off the effects, and when he wakes up he finds his wife, Mary, dead in front of the telly from a single blow to the head. The finger of suspicion points to Connon, seeing as he spent five hours in the house with the body. It’s hard to believe he slept, while a stranger entered his house and bludgeoned his wife to death. And thanks to his concussion, Connon is unsure of his own guilt. Into the mystery step Dalziel and Pascoe. Dalziel is a detective superintendent who approaches police work with the mentality of a sledgehammer. No remark is too rude or insensitive. No method is unacceptable as long as he busts through to the truth. Pascoe is different. The murder of Mary Connon represents his first major case as a detective sergeant on Dalziel’s patch. He’s sensitive and thoughtful towards the family of the victim. Police work, he believes, can be carried out without abusing anyone’s civil rights.
I read this book regularly and with each read, there’s been a discovery which has endeared me to the novel even more. By all accounts, Dalziel and Pascoe weren’t intended to be the principal players in a series, and it shows. They don’t hold center stage in these pages. They have to share it with a number of competing point-of-view characters, including Connon. While Dalziel and Pascoe do shine bright as characters, they shine just as bright as the rest of the engaging cast. Even the minor figures here are memorable.
Class plays a strong part in this book. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but it was certainly a feature of the times. In the aftermath of the 1960s, the social precept in Britain was changing during the ’70s. It’s there throughout the book. Dalziel represents the old guard. He worked his way up through the ranks to become a detective superintendent. Pascoe represents the future of policing. He’s a university graduate, groomed for greatness and being fast-tracked through the system. There’s friction because of these dynamics. Both men are intelligent and insightful, but their outlooks are different. Dalziel believes coppers are grown, not manufactured. The class issues continue with the other characters. The story centers around the goings-on at a local rugby club. Connon was an ex-rugby star who continues to play for the love of the game. Rugby was seen as a middle-class game, while soccer was the game of the masses. This class mismatch is illustrated by the resentment shown by Connon’s neighbor towards him. These class conflicts help signal an era of significant change in Britain.
The motivation for murder is an interesting factor here. In every one of Hill’s works, there’s something mundane about why someone commits homicide. But this isn’t to say that the reasons are boring. They aren’t. They’re just familiar. There is no fantastic motive--just the illustration of how ordinary people can dig themselves a hole so deep that they think murder is the only thing that will solve their problems. There’s something very recognizable and comfortable in Hill’s stories--people with petty beefs, people trying to hide their sins, jealously that goes too far. We identify with these people and the lives they lead. Under the right circumstances, we could fall down the same holes that the characters do in A Clubbable Woman and the other Dalziel and Pascoe books. Hill illustrates that he has a great understanding of people and the dumb things they do when push comes to shove. When you examine the reasons why Mary Connon is killed in this story, it all boils down to the weaknesses and indulgences of human beings.
I guess there’s a certain amount of nostalgia in this work for me too. Although I was a toddler in 1970, the picture of ’70s Britain is one I remember with affection. But nostalgia aside, A Clubbable Woman is a great first novel. Despite coming up for its 40th birthday, it reads as fresh as it did way back when, thanks to its depiction of human frailty, and that’s how great mystery novels last forever.