Saturday, January 14, 2012

Exit Lines

Reginald Hill (left) and critic-author Mike Ripley attending a mystery writers’ convention “somewhere in [our] happier--and much younger--days,” as Ripley explains.

(Editor’s note: This tribute to the late British novelist Reginald Hill comes from Karen G. Anderson, a Seattle-area resident who for many years wrote about crime fiction for January Magazine. At one time an Apple Inc. writer , Anderson has, for the last decade, “designed, written, and produced innovative online communications for business and consumer audiences.” She currently holds seats on the boards of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and Northwest Folklife.)

Crime-fiction writer Reginald Hill worked in a class by himself. He expanded on a niche created by Peter Dickinson for deeply literary, profoundly psychological, and quirkily creepy crime fiction. Hill, however, used all of those elements in the structure of a police-procedural series starring the unfailingly uncouth, cagey Superintendent Andy Dalziel (pronounced “Dah-ELL”) and his colleague, the perpetually worried Chief Inspector Peter Pasco.

That 24-book series unfolded over 39 years and was always contemporary. Someone who had only a passing interest in crime fiction could read the series and come away with a firm grounding in the social and political history of Great Britain, from the emergence of British feminism, through the Thatcher era, to terrorism and government surveillance technology, to the transformation of urban Britain into a multicultural society. (The series’ final installment, Midnight Fugue [2009], has the son of a Jamaican crime lord making a bid for a seat in Parliament.)

Enthusiastic fans of the crime fiction turned out by Hill’s contemporaries, such as Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson, often shy away from Hill’s own books because of the strong classics component that runs through them. I admit I wrestled with Arms and the Women (1999), based on the Iliad (and sub-titled “The Elliad,” after Pasco’s stridently feminist wife), terming it “dauntingly erudite.”

But while a reader lacking a classical education might struggle to catch the allusions (I’ve often wished for an annotated version), Hill wrote in clear, pungent prose and devised fast-paced plots that carried you right along. And he was an absolute master of dialogue.

He was also a master of characters. I confess I juggled the ambiguities and puzzles in many of his later books simply to find out what would happen to the astonishing Detective Sergeant Edgar Wield, a man as strikingly ugly as he was courageous and soulful.

And Hill contributed some of the creepiest bad guys to contemporary crime fiction--creepy because some of them turned out not to be bad guys at all ... maybe.

The last three books in the Dalziel/Pascoe series were all about death, illness, and the consequences of aging. Hill, who died this last Thursday at age 75 of cancer, was clearly playing with the ideas of lessening powers, and how society treats the ill and elderly. And how people remember the dead. Midnight Fugue sees the feisty Dalziel returning to work after near-death in a terrorist bombing and panicking when he realizes he’s headed off to the Monday-morning staff meeting ... on a Sunday.

Reginald Hill wrote genre books that did the genre proud. If you haven’t read them, and want to, a fine place to start is at the beginning, with A Clubbable Woman (1970), in which Dalziel despairs of ever turning Pascoe, an effete university graduate, into a hard-drinking, rugby-playing copper. It’s an easy read. You could also jump into the series (as I did) with On Beulah Height (1998), which shows Hill in stellar form. In that novel, the literary bits play second fiddle to a rip-roaring plot that makes the most of the colorful and complex secondary characters in this series. My own person favorite is Pictures of Perfection (1994), which focuses on Sergeant Wield. But if you have literary friends who turn up their noses at crime fiction, hand them the quotation-filled Dialogues of the Dead (2001) or Arms and the Women, and smile.

This is a series I read over and over again, the way I read the works of Australian author Arthur W. Upfield and the Maigret mysteries by Belgian-born fictionist Georges Simenon. I’m hoping there’s another book somewhere, perhaps to be published posthumously. I am not ready to say good-bye to Andy Dalziel.

READ MORE:Reginald Hill Obituary,” by Mike Ripley (The Guardian); “In Memory of Reginald Hill (1936-2012)” (At the Scene of the Crime); “Tribute to Reginald Hill,” by Norman Price (Crime Scraps).

1 comment:

Michael A. Gonzales said...

Very informative...though I've never read any of Hill's books, this essay serves as the perfect introduction.