By Jake Kerridge
Unlike some literary prizes (I’m looking at you, Booker), the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger has a noble record of rewarding the best writers for their best work. In theory then, Bones and Silence (1990), the only one of Hill’s novels to win the prize, ought to be his finest book. Julian Symons’s mighty history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, also declared it to be Hill’s best.
I also have a sentimental reason for wanting to write about it here: it was the first Hill book I read. I was fourteen, I think, had gorged my way through pretty much all of Christie, Conan Doyle and the Father Brown stories, and was struggling to find books by contemporary crime writers that measured up.
Then I picked up a second-hand copy of Bones and Silence and my socks were blown off. Here was a writer who had much of the ingenuity of those old, dead guys I loved, but had more scope and ambition. He could be exciting, he could be moving, he could be funny, and often any combination of the three at the same time.
I had no idea that crime novels could be so funny. There were lines worthy of my other teenage hero PG Wodehouse, albeit an earthier and worldlier version. On Pascoe desperately making a feeble effort at cheering up a despondent Dalziel: “It was … an attempt at comfort on a par with assuring Mrs Lincoln she’d have hated the rest of the show”.
Or how about some typically robust philosophising from Dalziel: “I sometimes think I’d as lief have a doughnut as a woman. One bang’s like any other, but every time you sink your teeth into a doughnut’s like the very first time”.
Dalziel is downbeat for much of the book as he is personally involved in the case he is investigating. As the novel begins he is delighted to spot a naked blonde standing at the window of a neighbour’s house – only to see her murdered. Or does he? Dalziel’s version of events is called into question and the coroner returns a suicide verdict.
Dalziel soon embarks on a vendetta against the man he believes is responsible. He doesn’t have much time, therefore, to worry about the anonymous letters he keeps receiving from a local woman who’s threatening to kill herself, and delegates the task of identifying the writer to Pascoe. It’s a brilliantly original twist on the classic crime novel formula: not a whodunit but a who-will-do-it, with the reader scanning the cast of suspects to find not a murderer but a potential suicide.
Hill expertly juggles his two plots, while weaving in a third strand in which Dalziel is cajoled by a sexy theatre director into taking part in a large-scale outdoor production of the medieval York Mystery plays, playing the part of—who else could it be?—God.
The craftsman’s skill with which Hill counterpoints plot with sub-plot is supreme; it would have been a waste, you feel, if he had ever written in a genre that didn’t demand such rigorous skill in plot construction. As HRF Keating said of another Hill book, “There are many strands … but at the final climax they come satisfyingly together to produce a pleasure not always to be found in the novel proper”.
It may be true that part of Hill’s appeal, like that of most crime writers, lies in the fact that his mysteries have an artificial neatness not found in real life. But this is balanced by an insight into human character in all its messiness, unmatched by most “novelists proper”. One of the delights of the Dalziel-Pascoe series is Hill’s depiction of Pascoe’s evolving relationship with his ultra-liberal wife Ellie. Sometimes they have all the sexy spark of Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles; sometimes, as here, they are going through a rocky patch.
Somebody asks Dalziel if he thinks their marriage will last. “It’ll take a miracle,” he replies.
“Because young Peter there can make it all the way to the top. But she won’t want him there because her let-out at the moment is she can still blame all the police fuck-ups on the scum-bags running things. So if he gets there, she won’t stay. And if he doesn’t get there, he’ll know who to blame.”
Dalziel is speaking with all the sad, clear-eyed wisdom of his creator there. I think, though, most readers will be glad that Hill never managed to age Peter and Ellie enough to get to this stage, and that they’re now stuck with each other for eternity.
And finally, there’s the quality of the writing. Here is Sergeant Wield, gay but firmly in the closet, recent victim of a beating from homophobic thugs. He sees the ringleader brought in on an unrelated charge. If he speaks up he will find his private life publicly dissected in court—and this is the late 1980s, when some communities regarded all gay men as AIDS-ridden pariahs.
But… he had to do it, whatever. Big risk, little risk, no risk at all. Duty, faith, call it what you will; that personal imperative which, expanded to a general principle, makes religions; corrupted, makes fanatics; but ignored, makes existence meaningless; this was the only arbiter.
I have read hundreds of crime novels since I first read Bones and Silence, but I have never seen the essence of what makes policemen do that thankless job described so eloquently.
Jake Kerridge is the crime fiction reviewer of the Daily Telegraph. The tribute he wrote on Reginald Hill’s death earlier this year can be read here.