The Magazine

No Mystery Here

Building the case for Reginald Hill.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.