Reginald Hill: the wit and wisdom …

By Mike Ripley, UK

Everyone – except perhaps the die-hard fan of Scandinavian crime fiction – knows that Reginald Hill was a very witty, sometimes achingly funny writer. Anyone who can have a character think “Like prison, once out of Yorkshire, there was no way he was going back” and invent a village in Wales called Llufwwadog (try reading it backwards), clearly has a funny bone or several.

Those lucky enough to know him were aware that his infectious wit came naturally, was not an act and it spread from his fiction into letters, Christmas cards and emails. He did not suffer fools gladly; though he was always polite to them. He could be sharp – he had a very sharp mind – but was never cruel, and my goodness, he was funny and always game for a laugh.

One of the advantages of being involved in the world of crime-writing is that, if you’re lucky, you get to meet your heroes. I think I first met Reg (it was always ‘Reg’ except on the covers of his books) in 1988 at a meeting of the Crime Writers’ Association in the infamous Groucho Club in London. When I introduced myself and gushed with fan-like awe that “I’ve read all your books”, Reg replied instantly: “And I’ve read all yours!” which came as a shock as I had only written one at the time. I learned later that our mutual editor at Collins Crime Club, Elizabeth Walter, sent him copies because she thought they would appeal to the naughty side of his sense of humour. After Elizabeth Walter’s retirement, Reg would send me a cheque – including postage – every time I had a new book out.

In those far-off days before emails and living at opposite ends of the country, we became what could quaintly be called pen-pals but it was at the 1990 Bouchercon in London that I discovered Reg also had a penchant for the ‘shaggy dog story’. We had both observed how visiting American mystery fans (who put British ones to shame in their enthusiasm) were snapping up not only books, but all the ephemera of crime writing: book marks, proof copies, hand-written notes, bar receipts (there were a lot of those) and autographs.

It seemed likely that there could be a market for, say, some private correspondence between famous crime writers, and especially if that correspondence was incredibly indiscreet about well-known publishers, agents and, of course, other writers. As I was unknown in America, a bigger name was needed and Reg suggested his friend from the Detection Club H.R.F. ‘Harry’ Keating, the creator of the Inspector Ghote mysteries, and so the idea of the ‘Hill-Keating Letters’ was born. The idea was for me to act as (dis)honest broker, having somehow come into possession of this correspondence, dating back to about 1970, the contents of which would be solid gold to any devoted crime fiction fanatic. Harry even went so far as to locate a supply of foolscap typing paper from the 1960s so that the typewritten Keating-Hill (or Hill-Keating depending on who was talking) Letters would look authentic and pass forensic scrutiny.

Of course no salacious letters were ever actually written, or forged, but the three of us had fun for ages suggesting who and what deserved to be included – and, yes, some famous names were involved.

Possibly the longest-running private, though occasionally public, joke we shared was that of ‘Professor Charles Underhill’, an ancient and crusty academic who had dedicated his life to identifying all the jokes in Scandinavian crime fiction.

‘Charles Underhill’ was the pen-name Reg adopted in 1978 for his 17th century historical romp Captain Fantom, a multi-lingual Croatian adventurer mentioned in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, although Reg did once persuade an ardent fan that Fantom had played left-back for Everton in the 1980s! I think the creation of ‘Professor Underhill’ began when I wrote a piece somewhere moaning that most Scandinavian crime fiction would be improved if only it contained a tenth of the humour and sheer bloody humanity found in the average Reg Hill novel. The character became our private short-hand for discussing the prospects of each ‘next big thing’ from Sweden or Norway and whenever Reg saw something in my Getting away With Murder column of which he approved, he would say: “I shall have it translated immediately into Old Norse for the delectation of Professor Underhill (it’s the only language he cares to read these days).” Continue reading