Book Review and Tribute: On Beulah Height – Reginald Hill

Review by Norman Price of Crime Scraps Review from the UK

A Tribute to Reginald Hill, Reading On Beulah Height

Reginald Hill died from brain tumour on the 12th January 2012 and will be greatly missed. Along with PD James, Ruth Rendell, and Colin Dexter he dominated crime writing in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was born on 3 April 1936 in West Hartlepool in County Durham, into, in his words “a very ordinary family”, and after passing his Eleven Plus Exam went to Carlisle Grammar, and St Catherine’s, Oxford.

Although he wrote other novels including a series about Joe Sixsmith, a black private investigator in Luton, he is best known for creating Andy Dalziel, the rumbustious police detective, who believed anyone from south of Sheffield was a “jumped up, supercilious intellectual twit”.  The series of books featuring Dalziel and his younger colleague Peter Pascoe started with A Clubbable Woman in 1970, and the last published book was Midnight Fugue in 2009.

UK paperback edition

I recently went back to read On Beulah Height, which was published in 1998, shortly after the television series began to feature on our screens in 1996.

Fifteen years before three young blonde girls had gone missing and no bodies had ever been discovered. These events occurred just before the village of Dendale was flooded by Mid-Yorkshire Water PLC to create a reservoir.

‘And Dendale was lovely, was it?’ said Pascoe.
‘Oh, yes. It were a grand place, full of grand folk.’

The reader learns about Dendale from a statement by Betsy Allgood, who was attacked by, but managed to escape from the strange reclusive Benny Lightfoot, who also disappeared without trace. The young Dalziel had released Benny and this was one case that remained unsolved.

When the water level falls in the reservoir due to the very hot weather, the bulldozed wreckage of Dendale is exposed and another young girl, Lorraine Dacre, on an early morning walk with her dog, goes missing.

The main sign of activity they saw was a man scrubbing furiously at a shop window on which, despite his efforts, the words BENNY’S BACK! Remained stubbornly visible.

This is one case that Andy Dalziel is determined to solve, and the reader is presented with several tense sub-plots, and a lot of red herrings along the way.

Any idea that 28 years into this series might make Reginald Hill lose his appetite for his characters can be dismissed. On Beulah Height is a superb example of the ensemble police procedural with a multiple perspective narrative.

The ensemble cast all feature in On Beulah Height. Edgar Wield is adjusting to his personal happiness as a gay man-in-a-relationship with wanting to be accepted as a brilliant detective.

It had been the first real test of his new relationship. Edwin Digweed, though fond enough of animals, made it clear he had no intention of sharing his home with a free roaming primate.  ‘A ménage a trois may have its attractions,’ he said. ‘A menagerie a trois has none.’

Ellie Pascoe may not be everyone’s favourite character but she has her husband Peter categorised.

Peter Pascoe, being as Ellie put it not exactly a New Man but certainly a one-careful-lady-owner, genuine-low-mileage, full-service-record-available kind of used man.

Shirley ‘Ivor’ Novello is struggling in this story not to become merely the tea girl and be sidelined from the important lines of investigation.

Great, thought Novello. But you don’t have to report to a bunch of men who aren’t all that impressed even when you have something positive to report!

Hill cleverly draws our attention to the changes in British society with the creation of two nations, the fat cats of the newly privatised industries and the service industries, and the poor of the farming industry and manual workers. He considers the position of women and what would now be called the glass ceiling.

…given the number of female high fliers who adopted the Thatcher principle of I’m aboard, pull up the gangplank!

In On Beulah Height Reginald Hill gives us a Fat Andy who is capable of reviving a past romance, and showing his softer side. Whenever I read the Dalziel and Pascoe books before the television series I imagined in my mind’s eye my old Professor as Fat Andy. The Professor was a gruff, tough Geordie (from the North East of England, Reginald Hill’s birthplace); but I never did see the softer side of the Professor, even during the six months I spent as his unpaid Assistant House Surgeon. I was very pleased when Warren Clarke, another Northerner but from Lancashire, took the part. He was ideal.

But Reginald Hill does give us a superb portrait of an old style boss trying to be kind, and actually succeeding in his own way.

He said, ‘Thank you. She’s… unconscious.’
He found he couldn’t say in a coma.
‘Best thing,’ said Dalziel with a Harley Street certainty.
‘Time out to build up strength. Pete, listen, owt I can do, owt at all…’  

Reginald Hill was an erudite writer and an amusing one, and even when dealing with the darkest of subjects he had the knack of being able to raise a smile from the reader. His books are intelligent; he was a master of the pastiche and the parody, as he used the police procedural as a vehicle to have fun and talk about society and issues that affected ordinary people.

With his ensemble cast of characters he was able to experiment and alter the emphasis and style in each book keeping them fresh and interesting for the reader and the author. His books have all the attributes of great crime fiction, good plots intertwined with sub-plots that may or may not be red herrings, great characters and a large dollop of humour.

How can you not admire a writer who has the chutzpah to begin a book…
(Recalled to Life, 1992)

It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes…

I am one reader who is very pleased that Reginald Hill chose not to write that Booker novel, and stuck to writing best selling crime novels. He will be greatly missed but the good news is that there is one more novel due for publication in 2013.

Thanks for inviting me to contribute to this tribute.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review and Tribute: On Beulah Height – Reginald Hill

  1. Oh what a lovely reflection on the book Norman…I love the way you’ve picked out hightlights from each of the series ‘regulars’. I do agree with you that he was able to keep the series fresh right to the end and very few writers can claim that.

  2. Yes, thanks for this lovely review. I have actually read this book, so it was particularly nice to be reminded of it.

  3. Reg told me that the published reality of ‘On Beulagh Height’ came very close to matching the Platonic idea he had of the story in his mind.
    I was in Reg’s fell walking group for over 20 years until he became ill. We have lost a very dear friend.

  4. Thanks Bernadette.
    The Dalziel and Pascoe books always remind me a little bit of Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series with the cast having varying amounts of attention in the different books. The TV series went gradually downhill when Novello, Wieldy and Ellie Pascoe left the cast.

  5. Thanks Maxine.

    Margaret, I am sorry that you have lost a friend. He seems to have been liked by everyone who came in contact with him, or read his books. A rare achievement.

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