By Margot Kinberg of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… from the USA.
Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels are justly regarded as one of crime fiction’s truly fine series. Beyond the fact that they’re well-written (which they are) and have well-developed characters (which they do) and solid mysteries (which they also do), these are novels rich with layers and themes. Little wonder at all that they’ve been called literary as well as crime novels. Space doesn’t permit a thorough examination of all of the themes and elements there are in this series. Hopefully a quick look at just a few themes and elements will convince you to see for yourself what I mean if you don’t know already.
One of the themes that run through several of the Dalziel/Pascoe novels is the connection between the past and the present. For example, An Advancement of Learning is the story of the murder of Alison Girling, former president of Holm-Coultram College. Five years before the events in the novel she disappeared and was assumed killed in a freak avalanche. When her body is discovered actually on the campus grounds, Dalziel and Pascoe are called in to investigate. While they’re investigating, student Anita Sewell is murdered. Then there’s another murder. The two detectives then have to find out what the connection is between the past murder and the two recent murders.
There’s a past/present connection in Good Morning Midnight too. In that novel, Dalziel and Pascoe look into the supposed suicide of successful businessman Pal Mciver. What’s eerie about this “locked room” sort of mystery is that Mciver’s death is exactly like that of his father ten years earlier. As Pascoe looks into the case, it seems more and more as though Pal Mciver’s stepmother Kay Kafka may have had something to do with both deaths. But the more he tries to investigate, the more he seems checked by Dalziel, who seems to want very badly for Kay Kafka’s name to be cleared. In this case, the key to both murders lies in the family’s history and in Dalziel’s own past.
The discomfort between Dalziel and Pascoe in Good Morning Midnight reflects another theme that runs through this series – the evolving relationship between the two lead characters. When the series begins, in A Clubbable Woman, the two men are set up, you might say, not to like each other. To the veteran Dalziel, Peter Pascoe is an inexperienced know-all with nothing but “book learning” and no real wisdom. To Pascoe, Andy Dalziel is a rude, boorish lout who’s been in the police business for too long. Both learn that in many ways they are wrong. Of course each knows that the other has faults. And in An Advancement of Learning and the other books that follow soon after A Clubbable Woman, there are several moments of conflict between them. But slowly the two develop a respect for each other and even a friendship. That’s part of the reason for which in Good Morning Midnight, Pascoe is as much hurt as he is upset when it seems that Dalziel doesn’t trust him enough to be forthcoming. It’s very much to Hill’s credit that he allowed these two characters to develop a relationship that is more complex than a stereotypical “cop partners” relationship. It’s not always smooth sailing for Dalziel or Pascoe or their partnership. But they grow to like and value one another too much to really want it any other way. And it’s also worth noting that the individual characters of Dalziel and Pascoe evolve too as the series moves on.
The Dalziel and Pascoe novels are also rich with well-written dialogue. Much is conveyed without the overuse of words, and Hill was a master at revealing personality through dialogue. Here, for instance is a bit of a conversation from Death’s Jest-Book. In that novel, Pascoe receives several letters from an old nemesis Franny Roote, who’s now at Cambridge. On the surface Roote’s letters reflect friendly concern for Pascoe and his family. But Pascoe reads much more than that into the letters. Here’s what happens when Pascoe discusses the matter with his wife Ellie, also an academic:
“‘But no need for you to lose any sleep, love. Even if he is planning to destroy you, Franny Roote is safely stowed away in faraway Switzerland for the rest of the month, so we can concentrate all of our attention on trying to survive the more conventional perils of Christmas, to wit, bankruptcy, mental breakdown and dyspepsia.’
‘To wit?’ said Pascoe. ‘I hope getting published isn’t going to turn you precious.’
‘Piss off, noddy,’ said Ellie, grinning. ‘That basic enough for you?’
‘I hear and obey,’ said Pascoe, finishing his coffee.”
Not only do we see both Hill’s and Ellie’s senses of humour coming through, but we also see the subtle differences in character between Ellie and her husband. We also see a bit of Roote’s personality as reflected in the conversation.
Hill’s expert use of dialogue, his ability to develop characters and their relationships and the many fascinating connections he made between past and present are just a few of the elements that set the Dalziel and Pascoe series apart. This is one of those series that, more than many others, bridges the gap between literary fiction and crime fiction and blurs the distinction between them.