By Val McDermid
When Reginald Hill died in January, I lost a friend, a colleague and a hero. It’s hard for a writer to be completely aware of their influences; it’s often easier for readers and critics to see what we’ve absorbed and reflected back from the books we’ve been drawn to. But I can point to a handful of writers whose work in one way or another helped to shape me. Reg was one of those.
I can still remember the delight of discovering Dalziel and Pascoe in A Clubbable Woman. It was one of those Grafton paperbacks with the uninspiring covers. I was in the café of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester where I used to hide from my newsroom colleagues so I could read instead of drink during my lunch break.
As I read, I realised I was smiling. But not because of the sly wit that permeates Reg’s writing. I was smiling because I had in my hands that rare thing – a crime novel that demonstrated that it’s possible to write a detective novel in good prose. Well-made sentences, felicitous choices of words, and the ability to create deft shifts of mood all revealed a level of literary craft that was unusual in British crime fiction back in the mid 80s.
For me, a fledgling crime writer struggling with her first novel, it set the bar high. And as Reg developed his skills through an impressive series of novels, he continued to provide me with a target to aim at. I always felt he was several steps ahead of me, and as well as enjoying his work, I learned from each of his novels. How to mislead the reader. How to draw on other writers’ work to enrich my own. Not to be afraid to invest real emotion in the work. How to allow characters to carry the weight of their past. To have the courage to be complicated.
It’s evident from the most superficial reading of the novels that Reg loved Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe, Edgar Wield and Ellie Pascoe. But it wasn’t a sentimental, blind love. He allowed them their faults but he never indulged them. They felt – they feel – like real people. That didn’t happen by accident. It takes time and honesty and empathy to flesh out imaginary characters, and I learned from Reg Hill that this was work worth undertaking.
There’s another respect in which Reg played an important role in my development as a crime writer, and this is one he shares with another giant of his generation, Ruth Rendell. Although they both created a central series of novels with recurring characters, they also branched out and wrote different kinds of novels with dramatically different protagonists. They did this because their imaginations conjured stories that couldn’t be told within the confines of their series novels and they knew their work would be richer if they could give voice to those stories rather than ignore them.
The trail they blazed opened the road for my own imagination to range far and wide across the genre. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.
Another lesson I learned from Reg is that there is a place in the crime novel for a nudge of humour. He could be satirical, he could be coarse and he could be wittily erudite. But those moments were always in balance with the rest of the book.
And sometimes, he dropped in little private jokes for his friends. In On Beulah Height, he has Andy Dalziel say something like, ‘He’s accustomed to the suffering of dumb animals, he’s been a supporter of Raith Rovers for years.’ As Reg himself later admitted, ‘Raith Rovers are the home team of my good friend Val McDermid who provoked me to a little retaliation by calling her rather weird profiler hero Hill.’ For me, that’s a badge of pride.
When Reg died, I was working on this year’s book, The Vanishing Point. Ironically, it’s a book that revolves around friendship and loss. In another irony, his absence has figured more in my thoughts than his presence did. Mourning his loss has been a powerful reminder of the generosity of his friendship and of the books he shared with all of us.
I’m just glad we’ve still got the books.