The Magazine

No Mystery Here

Building the case for Reginald Hill.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Price of Butcher's Meat

by Reginald Hill

Harper, 528 pp., $26.95

Reginald Hill's first novel, A Clubbable Woman, was published in Great Britain in 1970. Though it introduced one of the great police teams of the past four decades, Fat Andy Dalziel (pronounced Dee-ELL) and his university-educated subordinate Peter Pascoe, it took 14 years to find an American publisher. It isn't hard to see why: It's very British, with the background of a Yorkshire rugby club and plenty of allusions arcane to American audiences.

Many writers have been deemed not to travel well because they are "too English" (or maybe "too American"), but quality usually prevails in the end. While Hill has never achieved quite the stature in the United States that he has in Britain-the TV version of Dalziel & Pascoe has not been prominent here-he has developed a considerable following.

That first novel was essentially a standard whodunit, belonging to one of several popular genres that interested Hill. A restless and ambitious writer, he denies ever having intended to do a series, and indeed over half his output does not concern the Yorkshire cops. His other works include espionage novels, notably The Spy's Wife (1980), historical novels under the name Charles Underhill, nonseries crime under the name Patrick Ruell, and several books about black London private eye Joe Sixsmith.

But nearly 40 years after their debut, Dalziel and Pascoe are still on the case. Pascoe has become a more experienced officer, acquired an equally intellectual wife, and risen in the ranks. His boss Dalziel, the more interesting and original character and arguably Hill's greatest creation, has not had his edges gradually smoothed over like some long-lived fictional characters. Indeed, his Yorkshire dialect has become broader, more slangy and colorful, over the years.

Dalziel in A Clubbable Woman, discussing the case with Pascoe: "The only thing we make any progress with is the list of things we don't know. Item: who had a strong motive to kill her? No one we know, not even the great Connie as far as we know." In The Price of Butcher's Meat, describing the victim-to-be Lady Denham: "She were knocking on, sixties bumping seventy, but well preserved, and built like a buffalo, with an eye to match. If there weren't enough meat on young Clara to make a Christmas starter, there were plenty here for a main course with something left over for Boxing Day."

Hill has been continuously adventurous in his choices, keeping things fresh by varying style, setting, mood, and time period. In The Last National Serviceman (1994) he describes the first meeting of his sleuthing team, in which their experience as hostages of a mad former army conscript accounts for a grudging mutual respect. In the novella One Last Step (1990), he gives the pair a science fictional case, investigating a murder on the moon in 2010. Though its future extrapolations have proven less than prophetic, it's a neat detective puzzle and a possibly unique experiment. (These first and last cases were included in the 1994 collection Asking for the Moon.) The story within a story is a favorite Hill gambit: Arms and the Women (1999) includes segments from the ancient Greek historical novel Pascoe's wife Ellie is working on, while Dialogues of the Dead (2002) includes some pernicious submissions to a newspaper short-story contest.

The task Hill sets himself in his latest novel is more ambitious than ever: to transfer Jane Austen's unfinished final novel from the early 19th century to the present while keeping the same general situation and even the same character names. It's a tribute to Austen's modernity and universality: If Pride and Prejudice could be turned into a Bollywood musical set in contemporary India, why not make Sanditon a 21st-century detective novel?

Austen provided a perfect mystery setup: an inheritance. In the Austen fragment's first chapter, Mr. and Mrs. Parker are traveling in Sussex looking for the home of a surgeon living in Willingden, when a road accident near the home of Mr. Heywood injures Parker. While his sprained ankle is being tended to, Parker learns that he has the wrong Willingden but takes the opportunity to sing the praises of his home village, Sanditon: "The finest, purest Sea Breeze on the Coast-acknowledged to be so-Excellent Bathing-fine hard Sand-Deep Water ten yards from the Shore-no Mud-no Weeds-no slimey rocks. Never was there a place more palpably designed by Nature for the resort of the Invalid."

The Parkers remain as houseguests for a fortnight, at the end of which they invite the elder daughter of the house, Charlotte Heywood, to accompany them back to Sanditon.

In Hill's version, the events are largely the same, but the action moves to Yorkshire for the convenience of his continuing characters; modes of transportation, among other details, are updated; the sought-after healer is an alternative therapist rather than a surgeon; and the name of the seaside resort becomes Sandytown. Parker's sales pitch, no less fulsome, is adjusted to fit contemporary times:

We live in a sick world-a world suffering from some deep-rooted wasting disease-of which terrorism and [global] warming are but symptoms. To cure the whole we must start with smallest part, the individual! .  .  . Pure ozone-enriched air to cleanse the lungs-surging salty water to refresh the skin & stimulate the circulation-peace & quiet to restore the troubled spirit-

Hill's version begins with email messages from 22-year-old Charlotte (known as Charley) to her sister Cassie, a medical missionary in Africa. The missives are more detailed, intelligent, literate, and stylish than most such-how often do you come across the word "juvenated" in family correspondence?-but they have their quirks, shunning apostrophes and quotation marks and misapplying "ie" and "ei" in some words. Could these idiosyncrasies be clues to something or other, the reader may wonder? With the games-playing Hill, it's always possible.

Andy Dalziel is introduced as a patient in a Sandytown convalescent home, the Avalon Clinic, where he is recuperating from serious injuries suffered in his previous case, published in Britain as The Death of Dalziel and more accurately retitled for the American market, Death Comes for the Fat Man. (It came, but he rejected it.) As part of his therapy, Dalziel has reluctantly agreed to speak his thoughts into a digital recorder. For the remainder of the book, the narrative is divided among Charlotte's emails, Andy's oral diary, and Hill's customary elegant third person. Other characters from Austen are introduced, notably Lady Denham ("Every Neighbourhood should have a great Lady"), whose bizarre murder (she takes the place of a pig in a roasting basket revolving over a charcoal pit) provides a case for the Mid-Yorkshire CID, with Pascoe in charge but his invalid boss putting an oar in whenever possible.

Not all of the non police characters are drawn from Jane Austen: Back from the dead in a wheelchair is the charming rogue Franny Roote, whose long and complicated history with Pascoe began in the second book in the series, An Advancement of Learning (1971).

The nature of the crime justifies the title, taken from Austen's fragment. It occurs in a discussion of the possibility of local merchants raising their prices should Sanditon become a popular resort. Oddly, this is the second Hill novel in a row to have its British title changed. In the U.K. it is known as
A Cure for All Diseases, also from Austen and certainly an apt title for a murder mystery.

For all its ingenuity and readability, The Price of Butcher's Meat can't be counted among Hill's best strictly as a detective story, mainly because of an overcomplicated windup. But it is another exhibit in the case for Hill as one of the great crime writers, certainly among those currently active-and maybe all-time. He satisfies the demand of the current market for ever-increasing page counts, but achieves it with more matter, rather than the unconscionable padding of lesser writers, and he observes the more rigorous demands of real puzzle-spinning.

What better attributes for 21st-century crime fiction than contemporary sensibility, creation of deeply etched characters, keen ear for language, fine literary style, and respect for those often-scorned Golden Age conventions that make detective fiction a unique genre?

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.