By Bill Kitson
I was very sad when I learned of Reg Hill’s death. My regret was twofold, in part because I had heard so many people speak of him in such glowing terms, both as a writer and as a person, and also because I would have loved to have been given the chance to express my appreciation of his talent as demonstrated in one of his books in particular.
I had enjoyed the Dalziel and Pascoe books and the television adaptation of them, with the admirable Warren Clarke in the lead role. So when I was travelling to Crete on holiday, I looked forward to reading a stand-alone novel of Hill’s that I had bought at the airport. I didn’t realize the shock that was in store for me.
The book was The Stranger House, the plot of which centres around two young people from different countries, different continents even, and from widely differing backgrounds, who journey independently to Illthwaite, a small Cumbrian village, where the Stranger House is situated. The house has been used for centuries as a haven for travellers, but the youngsters are more interested in discovering the truth about what happened to their ancestors who came from that village and why they left, or were forced to leave.
Many of the inhabitants of the village are descendants of people who lived there 500 years ago during the period when people of the Catholic faith were being cruelly persecuted, and as old divisions emerge, it becomes clear that some of them have a vested interest in the secrets of the past remaining buried – literally buried in some cases. There is an awesome demonstration of Hill’s talent here as he varies the pace of the narrative when describing events in the present day and those from long ago, matching that speed to the pace of life at the time.
The young visitors gradually begin to uncover clues to crimes both old and new, and as I continued to read it and the plot wound its way to a logical conclusion, I reached the penultimate pages knowing I had worked out the satisfactory and credible ending.
Genius is an overworked word these days, but when I read the final word of the epilogue, I gasped aloud. The revelation contained in that final word pulled all the intricately woven threads of the plot together and provided added motive and credibility to everything that had taken place throughout the narrative. To construct a book that is 640 pages long and to leave the denouement until the very last word – that to me is genius, or something very close to it.
I may never be able to emulate such a result, or even get close to it, but The Stranger House will always remain a benchmark, a target that is possibly unattainable – but one that I can at least aim for. Falling short will be no disgrace. And for anyone who hasn’t read it, you’ve missed a treat. I thoroughly recommend rectifying that omission.
Bill Kitson, creator of the DI Mike Nash series, was born in Baildon on the edge of Ilkley Moor. In his leisure time he played cricket before becoming an umpire where a One Day International at Lords was the pinnacle of his career. He worked for many years in the finance industry (in the days when banks made profit!) before taking early retirement, when his love of writing became his fulltime occupation. Now, Bill lives in a small village in North Yorkshire on the edge of the Dales where the countryside provides the backdrop for his books.