By Nick Hay of Mystery Mile, UK
One of the most amazing aspects of the Dalziel and Pascoe series was Hill’s ability to write very different types of mystery while still retaining the integrity of the series characters; when, with enormous anticipation, one began to read the latest instalment it was with no fixed idea as to what the mood, topic or central trope of the book would be. It is very hard to think of any other crime writer who has ever achieved this feat within the confines of a series; the nearest is Margery Allingham in the Campion series which, like the Dalziel series, runs the gamut from the light-hearted to the wholly tragic. It would be true to say that this versatility, this plenitude, is probably what prevents Hill (and Allingham for that matter) being as highly rated as they should be. It is also why the television series is such a distortion (despite the excellence of Warren Clarke) – everything is flattened out and becomes monochrome.
Within the Dalziel canon it would be possible to map out certain groupings but considerable caution is needed due to the complexity of Hill’s writing; one could however point to certain extremes in the semi-comic An April Shroud and Pictures of Perfection (although the latter makes important political points) and the bleak tragedy of On Beulah Height and The Wood Beyond. One could also point to books which take a certain social issue like, again, The Wood Beyond (ageing) or Underworld (the Miner’s Strike), books which reflect Hill’s interest in spying/state secrets (Recalled to Life; Good Morning, Midnight etc.) and lastly books which have some literary association such as Arms and the Woman (Virgil), Dialogues of the Dead, Pictures of Perfection and so on. It is unlikely that every reader will value every ‘type’ of book equally, and even I, a Hill-disciple, enjoy those books with a ‘spy’ theme slightly less than the other two types I have described (although others might see quite different categories and I repeat that there is necessarily some crudeness in applying such a measure to a writer of Hill’s complexity).
My personal favourites are the literary jeu d’esprit which hark back to the Golden Age writings of Edmund Crispin and, above all, Michael Innes. There can be no question that A Cure for All Diseases, the penultimate Dalziel mystery, belongs in this category. Hill had introduced an Austenian theme previously in Pictures of Perfection, but in A Cure for All Diseases he took the idea much further than either he, or any other mystery writer as far as I am aware, had done before. This article attempts to demonstrate that by a close description of Austen’s Sanditon; it is not intended as any kind of conventional review of either book, rather to show how Hill used and played with his source material. The article will be largely meaningless to anyone who has not read A Cure for All Diseases.
Sanditon is an unfinished novel written by Austen in 1817, just before her death; 12 chapters are extant (they may be found here). A close comparison reveals that Hill takes much more than the name of his fictional sea-side town (Sandytown) from the novel. Sanditon starts when a carriage containing a Mr and Mrs Parker overturns in a very badly-made country lane, and they are rescued by a Mr Heywood. Mr Parker has been searching for a doctor to entice back to Sanditon, which he is enthusiastically promoting as a sea-side resort. He has made a mistake because there are two Willingdens (the name of the village in which the surgeon is supposed to reside) and he has got the wrong one. Mr Parker has sprained his ankle and therefore he and his wife stay with the Heywoods; when they are ready to return to Sanditon they take with them the Heywood’s daughter Charlotte. Mr Parker is garrulous, prolix, idealistic and kind with ‘more imagination than judgement’; the Parkers have 4 children. He has a brother Sidney, two invalid sisters and an invalid brother. The Heywoods are reasonably prosperous farmers but 14 (!) children make substantial inroads on their income.
‘The great lady of Sanditon was Lady Denham’. Lady Denham was originally a ‘rich Miss Brereton’ who has buried 2 husbands. First a Mr Hollis, who had been 70 when she married him at 30. He left her everything. She then married Sir Harry Denham who had been after her money but she kept tight hold of it, and when he died was said to have boasted that ‘though she had got nothing but her title of the family, still she had given nothing for it’. (Hill lifts this quote directly – I am sure he does some others but my recall is not good enough to cite them.) Lady Denham is now very rich and there are three sets of people after her money – the Hollises (whose chances are low because some of them contested Hollis’s will) ; the Denhams – Sir Edward the present Baronet and his unnamed sister, and the Breretons represented by Clara who is now Lady Denham’s companion.
The Parkers and Charlotte make their way to the Parkers’ new house on the hill which is called Trafalger House. (Mr Parker remarks that he regrets not calling it Waterloo which is ‘more the thing now’; this shows how closely and wittily Hill followed Austen – in A Cure For All Diseases the Parkers’ house is called Kyoto and Mr Parker regrets the name as Kyoto did not turn out too well and wishes he had called it Al Gore House!) Mr Parker discusses his siblings – Sidney a ‘very clever young man’ and reads a letter from Diana with an account of her and Susan and Arthur’s various maladies and cures. At the library (social centre) they meet Mrs Whitby and in the visiting list is the name of Mr Beard – Solicitor.
These are some of the main and obvious direct correspondences. Character Charlotte:
‘…was a very sober minded young lady, sufficiently well read in novels to supply her imagination with amusement, but not at all unreasonably influenced by them; and while she pleased herself the first five minutes with fancying the persecution which ought to be the lot of the interesting Clara, especially in the form of the most barbarous conduct on Lady Denham’s side, she found no reluctance to admit from subsequent observation that they appeared to be on very comfortable terms.’
(Austen is talking of the idea Charlotte has formed of Clara’s position.)
‘…as for Miss Brereton, her appearance so completely justified Mr. Parker’s praise that Charlotte thought she had never beheld a more lovely or more interesting young woman. Elegantly tall, regularly handsome, with great delicacy of complexion and soft blue eyes, a sweetly modest and yet naturally graceful address, Charlotte could see in her only the most perfect representation of whatever heroine might be most beautiful and bewitching in all the numerous volumes they had left behind on Mrs. Whitby’s shelves. Perhaps it might be partly owing to her having just issued from a circulating library but she could not separate the idea of a complete heroine from Clara Brereton.’
(We have no idea as to how Austen would eventually show Clara as turning out – first impressions are of course exceedingly dangerous in Austen as in mysteries.)
Miss Denham is:
‘…a fine young woman, but cold and reserved, giving the idea of one who felt her consequence with pride and her poverty with discontent, and who was immediately gnawed by the want of a handsomer equipage than the simple gig in which they travelled, and which their groom was leading about still in her sight.’
Sir Edward on the other hand:
‘…was much her superior in air and manner — certainly handsome, but yet more to be remarked for his very good address and wish of paying attention and giving pleasure. He came into the room remarkably well, talked much — and very much to Charlotte, by whom he chanced to be placed — and she soon perceived that he had a fine countenance, a most pleasing gentleness of voice and a great deal of conversation. She liked him. Sober minded as she was, she thought him agreeable and did not quarrel with the suspicion of his finding her equally so.’
However we soon discover that his intellectual capacity is near zero and his moral sense highly deficient. His ‘great object in life was to be seductive’.
Lady Denham shows herself to be both forceful and vulgar, shrewd and yet coarse. There is an amusing dialogue between her and Charlotte about the gold watch which she has passed on to Sir Ted and she warns Charlotte off him, as he will need to marry an heiress – ‘he must marry for money’.
The 12 chapters end with the following in Lady Denham’s house:
‘Charlotte had leisure to look about her and to be told by Mrs. Parker that the whole-length portrait of a stately gentleman which, placed over the mantelpiece, caught the eye immediately, was the picture of Sir Henry Denham; and that one among many miniatures in another part of the room, little conspicuous, represented Mr. Hollis. Poor Mr. Hollis! It was impossible not to feel him hardly used: to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Henry Denham.’
A passage which Hill repeats almost exactly (though it is not Charley observing). I should say that I have missed some concurrences on purpose in order not to be over lengthy, and no doubt far more because I have just not picked up on them.
Finally, leaving Sanditon and turning to A Cure for All Diseases itself, there are a couple of points to be made. In the first place several reviews of the book criticised the epistolary (or email) passages which dominate the first part of the book. They are of course addressed to Charley’s sister Cassie (Cassandra) and therefore refer not to Sanditon but to Austen’s famous correspondence with her sister Cassandra. Charley thus becomes in a way Hill’s personification of Jane Austen herself rather than the Charlotte of Sanditon – or at least a cross between the two. It is entirely appropriate in this context that she should be a trainee psychologist. It is a way of Hill having fun, although it also serves as a constant reminder of the Austenian themes of appearance and deception. Hill wants to take Austen and throw everyone he can into the mix – Dalziel, Pascoe, Wield and of course Franny Roote (oh what joy I felt when Roote appeared – he is another towering creation of Hill’s).
My final observation is that another way of grouping Hill’s books is by the dominant character – Dalziel, Pascoe, even Ellie or Wield. The Death of Dalziel paradoxically was a Pascoe book (or a Pascoe and Ellie book); A Cure for All Diseases is definitely a Dalziel book and Hill took this extraordinary gamble of having large chunks of first-person Dalziel narration. I seem to recall that he did this once before in short story but that was very much in fun. It is a very self-consciously literary device and has a certain shock value, (you might compare it with the one Wodehouse story where he turns Jeeves into a first person narrator – that’s shocking in a way too); it needs a brilliant writer to be able to pull this off, but then Hill was a brilliant writer, as A Cure for All Diseases so triumphantly demonstrates.
(April 2008, revised June 2012)
Nick Hay has been a mystery fan for at least 30 years and is a former reviewer for Reviewing The Evidence. Now he writes only very occasionally but his writing on a mystery theme can be found at Mystery Mile. His mystery tastes are reasonably widespread but, including Reginald Hill, at the head of any list of favourites would be Christie, Innes, Ellroy and, of course, Allingham from whom the title of his blog is purloined – while he considered that Mystery Mile was by no means one of her finest books he did consider it much the most appropriate title.