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”. Continue reading

Ellie Pascoe

By Margaret Murphy

Ellie Pascoe (Susannah Corbett) at her wedding to Peter.

By my calculation, the BBC adapted 14 of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, but this changed after On Beulah Height.  The producers decided to write Ellie Pascoe out of the TV series (in the storyline, Pascoe and Ellie divorce, and she moves to the USA with daughter Rosie).  If memory serves, Susannah Corbett’s other acting commitments were cited as an excuse for writing her out.  It was a mistake, and my own feeling was that television at the time was nervous of complexity, and a strong woman in the teleplay was just too demanding.  And Reg Hill did write wonderfully strong, vibrant women – even his apparently weak females are capable of whipping round and slapping you about the chops with your stereotypical notions.  Susannah Corbett met Reg and Pat Hill at the press launch of Dalziel and Pascoe. ‘As I walked in,’ she told me, ‘two very normal and unassuming looking people (quite out of place for a press launch) accosted me, shouting “It’s Ellie – you’re just how we imagined you.”  That remains the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.’  It was typical, too of Reg’s generosity of spirit.

When Arms and the Women was published in the USA, Random House had a Q&A on their website.  Asked for his thoughts on the TV adaptations, Reg paid tribute to the skills of the actors, directors and scriptwriters, but added, ‘TV is too self-absorbed to enter into an equal partnership.  You start close and cosy enough but soon you realize you’re not getting your fair share of the duvet and one day you wake to find you’re lying at the very edge of the bed, totally exposed to the chill morning air.’  I laughed when I read this, but I laughed harder at Reg’s response when he was asked at a conference how he felt about the loss of Ellie from the TV adaptations.  The TV producers had made their decision: Ellie was gone, Rosie was gone, and there was nothing Reg could do about it.  We would have forgiven him for raging – many of the audience were fuming on his behalf – but Reg made his point far more eloquently and decisively, and with his trademark wit.  He said he decided to write his next novel centred firmly on Ellie.  I remember the wicked gleam in his eye as Reg looked around the audience. ‘Adapt that!’ he said. Continue reading

Essay: A Cure for All Diseases and Sanditon

By Nick Hay of Mystery Mile, UK

One of the most amazing aspects of the Dalziel and Pascoe series was Hill’s ability to write very different types of mystery while still retaining the integrity of the series characters; when, with enormous anticipation, one began to read the latest instalment it was with no fixed idea as to what the mood, topic or central trope of the book would be.  It is very hard to think of any other crime writer who has ever achieved this feat within the confines of a series; the nearest is Margery Allingham in the Campion series which, like the Dalziel series, runs the gamut from the light-hearted to the wholly tragic.  It would be true to say that this versatility, this plenitude, is probably what prevents Hill (and Allingham for that matter) being as highly rated as they should be.  It is also why the television series is such a distortion (despite the excellence of Warren Clarke) – everything is flattened out and becomes monochrome.

Within the Dalziel canon it would be possible to map out certain groupings but considerable caution is needed due to the complexity of Hill’s writing; one could however point to certain extremes in the semi-comic An April Shroud and Pictures of Perfection (although the latter makes important political points) and the bleak tragedy of On Beulah Height and The Wood Beyond.  One could also point to books which take a certain social issue like, again, The Wood Beyond (ageing) or Underworld (the Miner’s Strike), books which reflect Hill’s interest in spying/state secrets (Recalled to Life; Good Morning, Midnight etc.) and lastly books which have some literary association such as Arms and the Woman (Virgil), Dialogues of the Dead, Pictures of Perfection and so on.  It is unlikely that every reader will value every ‘type’ of book equally, and even I, a Hill-disciple, enjoy those books with a ‘spy’ theme slightly less than the other two types I have described (although others might see quite different categories and I repeat that there is necessarily some crudeness in applying such a measure to a writer of Hill’s complexity).

Click for PB link on Amazon UK.

My personal favourites are the literary jeu d’esprit which hark back to the Golden Age writings of Edmund Crispin and, above all, Michael Innes.  There can be no question that A Cure for All Diseases, the penultimate Dalziel mystery, belongs in this category.  Hill had introduced an Austenian theme previously in Pictures of Perfection, but in A Cure for All Diseases he took the idea much further than either he, or any other mystery writer as far as I am aware, had done before.  This article attempts to demonstrate that by a close description of Austen’s Sanditon; it is not intended as any kind of conventional review of either book, rather to show how Hill used and played with his source material.  The article will be largely meaningless to anyone who has not read A Cure for All Diseases. Continue reading