Reginald Hill, “sorcerer of style”

December 21, 2008 at 2:18 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

beulah “Ever the master of form and sorcerer of style” – that’s what Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times called Reginald Hill in her 1998 review of On Beulah Height. At the time, I had just begun reading Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I knew I liked the way this guy wrote, but I didn’t know just how much until I read On Beulah Height. This is not just a brilliant mystery – it’s a brilliant novel in any genre, or all genres.

passion Lately, the Dalziel and Pascoe books have been longer and more widely spaced than in past years. (This reminds me of the trajectory of the P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh series.) A while back I was feeling the need of a Reg Hill fix, so I went back to an earlier (1973) series entry that I had never read: Ruling Passion, the third in the series. Here we find Peter Pascoe only a Detective-Sergeant (as opposed to his current rank, Detective Chief Inspector. There was never much doubt that Pascoe was a comer.) He and Ellie are lovers – but will they marry? All signs are affirmative.

Ellie Soper Pascoe (as she becomes in fairly short order) is one of my favorite continuing characters in this series. She’s quite the spitfire – an unapologetic feminist and aspiring novelist. Initially, she is not a fan of Peter’s boss, the larger-than-life – in every way! – Andy Dalziel. For his part, Andy describes Ellie in these colorful terms: “authentic liberal radical left-wing pink Dalziel-hating.”  Though it makes Peter anxious, these two love to spar.

butchers1 The latest novel in this series has been released in this country with a rather odious title:  The Price of Butcher’s Meat. The British title,  A Cure for All Diseases, is taken from a passage in Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne: “We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure for all diseases.” This is quoted in the front of the British edition and is very apt, considering that the novel takes place in a seaside town – Sandytown – that styles itself as a haven for those seeking both conventional and alternative treatments for whatever ails them. The American title comes from a passage in Sanditon, an unfinished novel by Jane Austen:

“Aye–that young Lady smiles I see–but she will come to care about such matters herself in time. Yes, Yes, my Dear, depend upon it, you will be thinking of the price of Butcher’s meat in time.

I think I see the connection to the book’s plot, but it is far more oblique than the quotation from Browne. And besides which – yes, it is from a Jane Austen work, and I don’t wish to blaspheme, but..THAT TITLE IS JUST PLAIN UGLY! And George Easter of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine (Fall 2008) agrees with me:

“I find it interesting that not only did the titles change, but also the quotes (that form the basis for the titles) found inside the books. Personally I like the title A Cure for All Diseases more than the other title. Don’t know why the American publisher wanted to change it to what I consider an inferior title.

At Bouchercon (where I attended a panel moderated by George Easter), we were told that publishers switch titles this way because they claim to know their audience, at least better than the rest of us poor slobs do. Sorry, but in this instance, at least, I think they screwed up.

So in what sense, you may fairly ask yourself, is Reginald Hill a master stylist? Well, there’s dialogue shot through with witty ripostes, for one thing. Here, Dalziel recollects a conversation he had recently with Franny Roote, a mysterious chameleon-like character who threads his way ominously throughout this series.

Franny: ‘Doesn’t Paul tell us that the love of money is the root of all evil?’

Dalziel: ‘Paul? Though that were one of Ringo’s.’

Here’s Andy deciding whether to confess to “Cap” Marvel, his girlfriend, about a recent indiscretion – or not:  “So I’ll sit on that till I know what it is I’m sitting on, as the actress said to the bishop.”

Andy is legendary for his earthy irreverence. Speaking in a broad, Yorkshire dialect, he delights in taking potshots at what he perceives as pretentious blather. Pascoe is often on the receiving end of these jibes; unlike his boss, he’s got a university education and isn’t above flaunting his erudition from time to time. Hill himself, a graduate of St. Catherine’s College, Oxford (1960),  has plenty of erudition of his own stored up for  use at strategic junctures. Here he describes one of the book’s female characters, the rich and imperious Daphne Denham, as “not quite yet ‘Venus toute entiere a sa proie attachee.'”

I was well and truly flummoxed by that one, despite my (admittedly rudimentary) knowledge of French.  A search disclosed that it is a quote from the play Phedre by Jean Racine. In an essay on classic French literature entitled “On Love,” Michael Dirda explains that  in that passage, the playwright depicts the Goddess of Love  as  “… a bird of prey, tearing into her victim with claws that will never let go.”

Here’s another snippet of dialogue featuring the strangely ubiquitous Franny Roote and the no-nonsense (and indispensable to Pascoe) Detective Sergeant Edgar Wield. First we have Roote intoning the following:

“‘Fate may have decreed I live my life like a gnome, but I try to record it like a gnomon, telling only the sunlit hours.”

He paused as if anticipating applause, though whether for his mental resolution or verbal convolution wasn’t clear. Wield’s face remained as unreadable as a footballer’s biography.

“Gnomon” sent me scurrying to the dictionary: it is “a column or pin on a sundial, etc. that casts a shadow indicating the time of day.” And as for the footballer’s biography, I can only conclude that like us, the British are enduring an outbreak of semi-literate and/or ghost written ‘memoirs’ from dubious celebrity sources.

Hill’s prose is likewise shot through with memorable decriptive passages. My all time favorite is this, from Recalled To Life:

“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”

Finally, I treasure this author because his characters do not indulge in tiresome, humorless soul searching, nor do they indulge in lengthy, melodramatic confrontations over who’s sleeping with/lusting after whom. In other words, they exist to entertain rather than irritate. That said, I have to say that IMHO, Butcher’s Meat is not the place for a neophyte to get started on Reginald Hill’s oeuvre. This is not his most accessible novel, beginning as it does with a lengthy series of e-mails from a secondary character, Charlotte “Charley” Heywood, to her sister in Africa. These are interspersed with italicized interior monologues courtesy of Andy Dalziel. Conventional narrative does not appear until almost a third of the way into the novel. Butcher’s Meat sprawls, clocking in at just over 500 pages. It has a bewilderingly large cast of characters, but it doesn’t have Ellie Pascoe, whose bracing, acerbic presence I missed.

I think that a reader new to this series would do well to start with The Wood Beyond (1995), or, if you’d rather not go back that far, Dialogues of the Dead (2002).



Just make sure that at some point, you read On Beulah Height, in which Hill mixes memory and desire, to stunning effect.

Reginald Hill, photographed by Nigel Hillier

Reginald Hill, photographed by Nigel Hillier


  1. Kerrie said,

    Reginald Hill is one of my favourite authors Roberta. I think in A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES he tried to write not only a tribute to Jane Austen by suggesting a possible ending to her unfinished novel SANDITON but write a nhovel that would appeal to his crime fiction following. For many of the readers (not me) it didn’t quite hit the spot as they didn’t like the intellectual games that he was playing. It is in my list of best reads for 2008

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    I think you’re exactly right about the genesis of this novel, Kerrie. Hill pretty much hints at this purpose in his prefatory dedication “To Janeites everywhere.” Sanditon is the only Jane Austen novel I’ve never read, so I was at a bit of a disadvantage in that respect. ( I did get – though not right away! – the similarity “Sanditon” & “Sandytown.”)
    It didn’t entirely work for me either, but I’m such a devoted fan of Reginald Hill’s that I can’t help but take pleasure from his work.

  3. Martin Edwards said,

    I share your admiration for Reg Hill. His combinaton of intellect, wit and ingenuity ensures that every book he writes is a real treat. I can also strongly recommend his short stories.

  4. Angie Boyter said,

    As a long-time fan of Reginald Hill, I agree with your assessment and admire tremendously the way you express it. I suspect that the late Dr. Brooke Pierce would beam proudly at his former student.

    I thoroughly enjoy all of Hills’ characters from Dalziel to Wield, but Fanny Roote intrigues me more and more. I want to get inside this guy’s head (why I don’t know) and am acquiring all the Franny Roote books to see if I can understand him better by rereading them all in a short timespan. How many authors can develop a character so intriguing?

    • Paul Austin said,

      Howdy, I was searching for some info on Dr. Brooke Pierce and saw his named mentioned here. I was a student of his. Has he passed on?

      I also wondered where else he taught other than where I met him at SUNY Oswego.

      thank you,
      Paul Austin

      • Roberta Rood said,

        Hi, Paul,
        Brooke Peirce was my English professor at Goucher College in Towson MD (just north of Baltimore) in the early 1960’s. He was also my advisor. Brooke Peirce was an inspiring professor and a good friend to me, as an English major.
        I had no knowledge of his teaching elsewhere, so thanks for this info.

  5. Janet Rudolph said,

    Reginald Hill is one of my favorite authors. I’ll be interviewing him in the next week or so for a new feature on my blog. Mystery Fanfare ( Loved The Price of Butcher’s Meat, but not the title. Couldn’t agree with you or George more that it was a poor choice. The English titles A Cure of All Diseases is so much better, and I’m an Austen fan.

  6. Sunday Sampler « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] name!) is the blog of a book loving retired librarian. And finally, a mutual love of the novels of Reginald Hill led me to “Payal Dhar, Wordsmith” and the delightful  […]

  7. Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript provides yet another occasion of exuberant good times, not to mention no-holds-barred assessment, for the Usual Suspects « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] early oeuvre and seeing how it compares to his or her present work. A few years ago, I went back in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series to the third entry, A Ruling Passion (1973), and really enjoyed it, not least because it depicts […]

  8. Other voices, other blogs « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] this month, Nan posted a review of An April Shroud, the fourth entry in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel & Pascoe series. I like the way she describes herself as being “powerless” over this extraordinary […]

  9. Crime fiction: good things in store… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] series:   (I’m excluding two short story collections from this tally.) I’ve written in prior posts about my deep respect and affection for this author and his works. Reginald […]

  10. The Age of Wonder: a truly wonderful book « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] encountered  this oddity as the title  of the 2003 entry in the Dalziel/ Pascoe series written by Reginald Hill. It’s one of the longest mysteries I’ve ever read, but it’s by a master of the […]

  11. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] What the Dead Know – Laura Lippman On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill The Godwulf Manuscript and The Professional – Robert B. Parker […]

  12. In a race to the finish line, I finish The Girl Who Played with Fire… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] to a degree, to break the tension. In this regard, Larsson sometimes reminds me of Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill, although in most ways he could not be more different from these two favorites of mine in the […]

  13. Minerva said,

    Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google,
    and found that it’s truly informative. I’m gonna watch out
    for brussels. I’ll appreciate if you continue this in future.

    Lots of people will be benefited from your writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: