By Michael Walters
As it happens, I can date my first encounter with Reginald Hill’s books fairly precisely. It was the summer of 1989 and I was taking short holiday with my wife in Dorset. Those were the days before children, so we could still enjoy the occasional leisurely Sunday morning. We were sitting in some Dorchester cafe and I’d bought myself a copy of the old Sunday Correspondent newspaper. The Correspondent survived less than a year, which is why I know the year, but it was a decent newspaper and, in this one instance, it did me a big favour.
The Correspondent had a good book section, and that edition contained a lengthy article on an author who was described, without qualification, simply as the best crime-writer in Britain. I was intrigued. My knowledge of crime fiction was more limited in those days, but I’d been reading the stuff avidly since I was a teenager and yet apparently had somehow contrived to miss the country’s best. The next day I found myself, inevitably, in a local bookshop and I picked up a copy of Hill’s most recent paperback, Under World. I immediately became even more intrigued. This was a crime novel, set in Yorkshire, dealing in part with the aftermath of the 1984 miners’ strike and the legacy of resentment and suspicion that lingered in the mining communities.
So Under World was the first Reginald Hill novel I read, and – although I think one or two of the other Dalziel and Pascoe books are possibly even better – it’s the one that most lingers in my mind. Partly, it’s a personal resonance. I come from a mining family. My father, and my uncles and grandfathers on both sides all worked in the pits, and I was brought up in a mining town (about half a mile from where D H Lawrence was born, in fact). The strike itself had been traumatic, and over the previous decade I’d watched pit after pit closing. My father’s last job, before he took early retirement, was literally closing down the pit where he’d worked. So it was remarkable to find a crime-writer describing that world so convincingly, tackling the emotions and politics in a way that was moving and gripping, but never sentimental or polemical.
And, on top of that, it’s a terrific crime novel. Like all Hill’s books, it’s meticulously plotted, brilliantly constructed, gloriously characterised, and beautifully written. And funny. I envy any reader who has yet to discover the extraordinary Chief Superintendent Andy Dalziel. There’s a terrific scene in Under World in which Dalziel braves the local Miners’ Welfare, faces down the inevitable hostility, drinks everyone under the table, and still manages to extract a wealth of relevant information. Adam Dalgliesh never does that.
But what I like most about Hill’s work is that every character is fully realised. It’s the interplay of the individuals that brings the books to life and, in this case, enables Hill to explore the social and personal impact of the strike and the subsequent death of the mining industry. We have not just Dalziel’s brusque pragmatism, but also Pascoe’s continuing struggle between duty and decency and his wife Ellie’s political idealism and occasional naivety (which in this case leads her to fall for the Lawrentian murder-suspect). This is also the book in which the stone-faced Sergeant Wield, always one of Hill’s best characters, first emerges from the closet. The ultra-liberal Pascoe is astonished and slightly uncomfortable to learn that Wield is gay. Dalziel, of course, has known all along.
I loved Under World when I first read it and still love it now. I was amazed to discover that Hill had already published ten Dalziel and Pascoe books, as well as numerous others. But clearly the fates weren’t going to allow me to overlook these books any longer. A week or so later, back at home, I was idly browsing through the second-hand books in the Oxfam store on Wimbledon Broadway (you’ll have realised by now that I largely measure out my life in bookshops), when I saw that someone, clearly devoid of taste, had given away their complete set of Dalziel and Pascoe books. I bought all ten for 50p a shot – very probably the best fiver I’ve ever spent. In later years, when I became a writer myself, I occasionally felt slightly guilty at depriving Hill of those royalties. I hope I made up for it later by buying everything he produced pretty much as soon as it appeared. Sometimes before it appeared, in fact – I recall my joy at finding a US edition of Bones and Silence in Murder One a week or two before its British release. And I’ve gradually amassed all the books of short-stories, the Patrick Ruell thrillers, the Dick Morland science-fiction, and everything else. So I can probably live with my conscience.
For me, there’s no question that that long-ago Sunday Correspondent article got it right, even before Hill has written books like Bones and Silence, The Wood Beyond, Pictures of Perfection and countless others that followed Under World. Hill was quite simply the best crime-writer that Britain’s produced in the last thirty or forty years. No one can match him for range, diversity, ambition, wit and inventiveness. I suspect he still tends to be underrated simply because he was so prolific, but nothing he wrote was less than excellent.
Like many writers, I struggle to talk about my influences. But Hill is definitely top of the list. My Mongolian books are set, almost literally, a world away from Hill’s Yorkshire, but I am conscious that the working relationship between my characters Nergui and Doripalam owes more than a little to that between Dalziel and Pascoe. Although Nergui is nothing like Dalziel, Doripalam is perhaps what Pascoe might have been if he’d been born in Ulaan Bataar. And it was only after I’d created the hard-drinking, overweight dishevelled pragmatist, Tunjin, that I realised I’d slipped in, albeit at a much more junior level, an unwitting tribute to Fat Andy. In my Alex Walters books, the character of Keith Welsby is also in part a small, grateful hat-tip in Dalziel’s direction.
But Hill’s influence on my writing is greater than that. I occasionally wonder whether, if I hadn’t handed over that fiver to Oxfam in 1989, I’d ever have had a shot at writing crime-fiction myself. Perhaps Hill’s greatest quality – one that permeates all his books, even at their most serious – is that he always seemed to be having tremendous fun. He made me think that, actually, this writing lark might be worth trying out. Unlike some of the contributors to this site, I never had the chance to meet him, and I kick myself now for a few lost opportunities in recent years. But if I had, I’d have mainly wanted just to offer him my thanks – for all the pleasure he gave me as a reader and all the possibilities he opened up for me as a writer.
Michael Walters has published three crime novels set in Mongolia, published by Quercus. His most recent book, written as Alex Walters, is Trust No One, published by Avon/Harper-Collins, the first in a series set in and around Manchester and featuring the undercover officer, Marie Donovan. A sequel, Nowhere to Hide, will be published in October.