When I heard that Reginald Hill, one of my very favourite crime writers, had died back in January I felt keen regret that there wouldn’t be any more novels coming from that particular pen.
By all accounts he was a great guy – I only met him once, at a crime-writers convention, where he was very jovial and friendly to a rather awestruck fan – and Martin Edwards, another favourite crime writer of mine, who knew him well writes rather movingly of him as a generous man, loyal to his friends and family and a great personal inspiration.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of Hill’s books, though by no means all, and of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels my favourite is Dialogues of the Dead. To my mind, this took the detective duo to an altogether different level and one I found exciting and fascinating. Anyone who’s read it will know what I mean; the atmosphere and characters transcend the more prosaic pace of the earlier novels and the wordplay it contains is astounding. Erudite, yes. Un-putdownable, also yes.
I read The Stranger House a couple of years ago, which radiates the sinister spookiness of the later Dalziel and Pascoe novels but is a standalone story. It’s a complex historical whodunit, despite being set in present day Cumbria, and in subtle menace and the impact of the past on the present has something in common with Martin Edwards’ own Lake District cold-case detective series. Loved it.
Another favourite is On Beulah Height. The story is intriguing and I especially liked the way it was interleaved with Pascoe’s daughter’s illness and how this plays out in her mind. Given that the main story is themed around a threat to children, with water a constant leitmotif, threading through the parallel viewpoint the tale of a little girl who is trapped by a nix, a malevolent water sprite, is genius.
I enjoyed Hill’s Joe Sixsmith series of novels, too. Private eye Joe sings in a choir, defers to his scary Aunt Mirabelle, lives in Luton and has a cat called Whitey. Joe himself is black, and Reginald Hill has no problem conveying this sardonic, self-deprecating and very appealing character, and taking one or two sly kicks at casual racism and modern injustice on the way. I love the humour and I’m sure many others do, too; I know my crime-mad dad does. A great shame Hill only wrote five and now there’ll be no more! Wah!
So, when I was looking for something else on the shelves of my local WH Smith last week and came across Hill’s last-published novel The Woodcutter, I was happy to buy it and put the biography of Roger Federer I’m reading on hold, fascinating though it is. I’m now some way in and was delighted to see that the first few chapters actually form part of a prologue. Who says prologues are bad style and not to be encouraged in new writers? Some of our reviewers hold this view, and no doubt for good reasons, but if Reginald Hill can do it, well, that’s an example to aspire to, by my reckoning.
A postscript here. I decided at the weekend to lend my copy of On Beulah Height to my friend, a crime fiction fan. I flicked to the title page to check it had my name in and discovered it did indeed: it had a hand-written dedication from the great man himself, garnered at that convention, no doubt. Needless to say, I found something else for my friend, and that particular book remains firmly on my bookshelf.