My crime-writing colleagues have been writing sadly, lovingly, admiringly and eloquently about Reg Hill, and I can’t pass up the chance to say what a wonderful writer and delightful man we have lost. I venerated him greatly and loved his company. It was my proudest moment as a crime writer when he proposed me as a member of the Detection Club. I wish I could remember the affectionate jibes he directed at me in his speech.
Reg was erudite, cultivated and a master of the English language, but he wore his learning so lightly and wittily that it was reminiscent of a soufflé surprise. He could be authoritative, but he was never ever pompous. He laughed affectionately at himself, at his friends, at the world and at his characters. When he described himself as being at the Jane Austen end of the crime-writing spectrum he meant he didn’t go in for torrid sex or graphic violence. But of course the comparison works at a much deeper level. Like Jane, Reg was a wise and amused observer of the human condition who had great compassion but a subversive pen and utterly despised pretention.
I was a happy member of the audience at Harrogate in 2009 for his memorable discussion with John Banville. He had wondered in an email what they could talk about. ‘Dare I suggest that as Iris Murdoch got a full Booker for The Sea! The Sea! he should only have got half a one for The Sea? Maybe not…’
In the event Banville deeply irritated the audience of crime-writers and readers by explaining that in a day’s work he could easily produce a few thousand words when writing a Benjamin Black thriller, but no more than a few paragraphs of one of his ‘literary’ novels. Reg moved elegantly to punish the unforced error and confided that every morning he consulted his wife Pat as to whether he should work on a Man Booker prize-winner or another bestselling crime novel. ‘You know, it’s funny, but every day we come down on the side of the bestselling crime novel.’
It brought the house down.
In an email after I had become involved in an ensuing literary spat with Banville, Reg mentioned having been quoted by a blogger ‘as saying that many of my best friends are literary novelists, missing out the small joke that followed – living in great poverty in places like Scunthorpe – so that it sounds as if I’m boasting rather than taking the piss. What JB said and what he now writes confirms my sense that he realised he’d rather put his foot in it and was genuinely concerned to backtrack, which just goes to show that even a man who labours a whole day to hone a single sentence can still sometimes get it wrong.’
He wished me well. ‘As a spectator sport it’s hard to beat an Irish debate. It’s a bit like hurling, hard to follow, fast and furious with all the players waving big sticks that they don’t actually hit anyone with, except one suspects if an Englishman were foolish enough to step on the field of play. I feel the clue lies in the blogger who said that a gathering of crime writers was always a bit Stepford wife-ish. Surely only an Irishman could object to the company of pleasant amiable people!’
Had the literary establishment not been an ass, it would have awarded Reg the Booker Prize in 1998 for the haunting, brilliant On Beulah Height. Because of literary snobbery, it wasn’t even listed, and the prize went to Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, which I was not alone in finding unreadable. That and other such rejections caused Reg no trauma: rather they increased his gentle disdain for self-important writers. ‘Aren’t I glad to be living far above the smoke and stir of that dim spot that men call the mainstream literary world!’
I’d asked him for permission to add a bit of class to the debate by quoting him. ‘I’ve been accused of much but never class!’ he responded. ‘But quote away by all means.’
I’m glad that I replied ‘You’re not just classy. You’re cool.’ Thanks, Reg, for all the stimulation, inspiration, encouragement and fun.
From the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival: Reginald Hill live at Theakstons Crime 2009 – ‘The Line Between Literary & Crime Fiction’.