Reginald Hill: the central dynamic

By Stephen Booth

Aside from his stature as a writer, there’s one characteristic of Reginald Hill that everyone seems to agrees one – his generosity of spirit and unfailing willingness to support other writers. So it seems fitting that one of the most succinct summaries of his approach to writing a crime novel didn’t appear in any tribute to Reg, or in an interview with him, or in anything that he said about himself. It appeared in an appreciation of another author’s work.

I felt I’d been given a fascinating glimpse into the Reginald Hill crime writing philosophy, when I read these words: “Good crime fiction is economical, which does not mean short but rather that everything in a book, however apparently peripheral, incidental, or even ornamental, should contribute to the story’s central dynamic. If a writer is successful in this, readers will finish the book with that contradictory sense of delight and disappointment – delight at having enjoyed such a complete and rounded experience, and disappointment that it’s over!”

I think the idea of the “central dynamic” is crucial to an understanding of Reginald Hill’s novels. Some crime writers (and indeed editors) might insist that nothing should be in a book which doesn’t contribute directly to moving the plot forward. But for Hill, there was more to a book than the plot. That “central dynamic” was about an idea, a theme, or an underlying concept. The unravelling of a mystery was a very important part of that concept, but not the whole of it. All those peripheral, incidental or ornamental elements were crucial to the story too. So each Hill book became, to use his own words, “a complete and rounded experience”.

Essential to this experience, though hardly “peripheral”, were the characters. Of course, I’m thinking particularly of the inimitable Andy Dalziel and his partner Peter Pascoe, but also of Sergeant Wield and Ellie Pascoe – and indeed of all the central, minor or incidental characters who’ve appeared in the Hill novels over the years. The fact is that they’re all real people, every one of them with his or her own personality and internal life. This is the only way to draw readers in to your fictional world so that their imaginations are fully engaged – to convince them that your characters are real. Reg Hill was a master at this. As a result, the reader’s involvement with the characters becomes an essential part of that “complete and rounded experience”. The story arc of Andy Dalziel’s life is critical to the central dynamic. In fact, even if you should guess halfway through a book “whodunnit” (though it’s unlikely!), those inexorable dynamics will still draw you through to the end, because you have to find out what happens to all the people involved in the story.

Link to PB on Amazon UK.

And then we have the layers of meaning, another characteristic of a Reginald Hill novel. He stands out among crime writers for his erudition and use of literary allusions, not to say a way with vocabulary which will have even the best educated reader reaching for the Oxford English Dictionary (start by looking up “epeirogeny” or “pendentious”). Even his serial killer, the Yorkshire Choker, in ‘A Killing Kindness’, quotes from Shakespeare, while ‘A Cure for All Diseases’ is his Jane Austen tribute, a reworking of the unfinished ‘Sanditon’. His 1992 novel ‘Recalled to Life’ takes ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ as a major theme – in fact, the title was Dickens’ own alternative name for his book. As is often the case with Hill, the literary allusions become important clues to the story.

A reader on Amazon writes of Hill’s outstanding Dalziel and Pascoe novel ‘On Beulah Height’: “Reginald Hill is a proper writer, and I was left to wonder if he is slumming it in the crime genre. His writing has the depth and breadth usually only found in the literary novel.” A “proper writer” he certainly was. I suspect that British crime fiction won’t see another like him for a very long time.

Link to PB on Amazon UK.

A few years ago at Bouchercon in the USA, I was among a panel of authors asked to choose favourite openings from crime novels. One of those I picked was the opening from ‘Recalled to Life’ – not only for its playful references to ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, but because it could only have been written by Reginald Hill. He was, I think, the only crime writer who could get away with using ten semi-colons in the first sentence of a book!

“It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crime; it was born of love, it was spawned by greed; it was completely unplanned, it was coldly premeditated; it was an open-and-shut case, it was a locked-room mystery; it was the act of a guile-less girl, it was the work of a scheming scoundrel; it was the end of an era, it was the start of an era; a man with the face of a laughing boy reigned in Washington, a man with the features of a lugubrious hound ruled in Westminster; an ex-marine got a job at a Dallas book repository, an ex-Minister of War lost a job in politics; a group known as the Beatles made their first million, a group known as the Great Train Robbers made their first two million; it was the time when those who had fought to save the world began to surrender it to those they had fought to save it for; Dixon of Dock Green was giving way to Z-Cars, Bond to Smiley, the Monsignors to the Maharishis, Matt Dillon to Bob Dylan, l.s.d. to LSD, as the sunset glow of the old Golden Age imploded into the psychedelic dawn of the new Age of Glitz. It was the Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and sixty three.”

I know Reg Hill will still be contributing to the central dynamic of British crime fiction for many years to come.