“You can’t tell people how to write books,” states Reginald Hill. “The only advice I give aspiring writers is that, when you have finished your first novel, immediately start writing your second because now you will have a feint idea of how it is done.” Smiling he adds, “And don’t sit around waiting for publishers to come pushing wheelbarrows full of money—they won’t.”
Acting on this directive himself, the novelist completed his first manuscript, Fell of Dark, and shortly afterwards started work on his first published novel, A Clubabble Woman. Since the latter appeared in 1970, Hill has had a further twenty-nine books published under his own name, and another twelve under three pseudonyms. Best known for his novels featuring Yorkshire policemen Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, the author has also written three highly enjoyable books about Joe Sixsmith, a private investigator operating in Luton. Besides wining two Crime Writers’ Association Daggers for his writing, Reginald Hill was also awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to the genre. Following the publication of On Beulah Height earlier this year, the imminent republication of Fell of Dark in December, and the prospect of a new instalment in the Sixsmith series in 1999, Adrian Muller spoke to the author about his writing career.
When asked to give some brief details about his background Reginald Hill reels off the essentials without a moments pause. “I was born in 1936 in West Hartlepool, County Durham, and I was brought up in Cumberland in Carlisle from the age of two or three. Education: Carlisle Grammar School, followed by two years national service. Lance Corporal, unpaid—unappreciated—in the Border Regiment. Then three years at Oxford—St. Catherine’s—followed by a year in Edinburgh as a British Council Overseas Students Officer. After that I went into teaching as a secondary school teacher down in Essex. Later I became a lecturer in a college of education in Yorkshire where I remained until I gave up the day job in 1980 and went into full-time writing.” Aware that it is his writing that most people are interested in, Hill slows down to reflect a bit further. “The first book came out in 1970 and during the 70s I gradually felt myself changing from being a college lecturer who wrote fiction on the side to being a novelist who did some college lecturing. So, at the end of the decade, I came clean and took the big leap into the unknown,” he says with good humour.
One of the things that makes Reginald Hill’s writing such a pleasure to read is his ability to conjure up realistic portrayals of not only characters from different social backgrounds, but also those from different generations. Does the author feel that his career in education helped him in his writing? “I couldn’t say consciously that it helped, but looking back it probably did,” Hill says after a moment’s reflection. “A lot of people wondered whether being separated from the world of work might affect my writing, ‘Where are you going to get your characters from?’, but I never found any trouble in still being able to reach into my knowledge or my imagination.”
The answer to whether his choice to become a teacher had been a conscious one comes after an interesting diversion. “Back in the good old days if you had a degree, especially if it was from one of the old universities, there was none of this business of graduate unemployment,” he explains. “People used to come out to Oxford to interview us. They would take a suite of rooms at one of the local hostelries and the young undergrads would go around and pick and choose. We had a very different world outlook than the poor kids nowadays. You got to an age where you thought ‘Oh, I need a job’, and you looked around and the world was full of a variety of them. I thought I would give teaching a try to see if I liked it and found out that I did. It was as simple as that.”
Hill has fond recollections of both his students and his colleagues, and adds that he has always enjoyed people’s company. “Perhaps something of this comes out in my writing,” he says, “or perhaps it comes from the same spring of wanting to communicate. I have never really been one for analysing myself and trying to work out where it all comes from.”
Having started reading and making up stories at a very early age, the first adult fiction Reginald Hill encountered was crime fiction. “I came from a very ordinary working-class background. There weren’t a lot of books in our house, but my mother was a great enthusiast of the golden age of crime writing,” he remembers. “When I was going down to the children’s library, my mother would ask me to pop into the ‘big’ library and ask if they had anything new by Agatha Christie or the likes. After a while I started wandering into the big library and began investigating the shelves myself. So my toes were dipped into crime fiction at a very early age.”
Hill does not feel that any particular crime author has been of influence on his work. “It was the idea of the novel as a vehicle for telling a story about crime and detection that was very early imprinted on my mind,” he explains. Smiling he recalls, “In my middle teens I decided I was going to sit down and write a great crime story but it never came to anything.”
A few years later Reginald Hill became what he calls a literary snob. “I suddenly realised I was enjoying the great novelists, Dickens, Hardy, and Austen, and crime fiction became rather beneath my notice for a while. My ambitions changed. I now wanted to write not thrillers or detective stories but the great English novel. I have still have a bottom drawer full of first chapters somewhere.”
The latter remark is typically self-depreciating for the author. Over the years the entertaining whodunits he first wrote have become increasingly ambitious in content and style. Without much effort a case could be made that Hill has become an author of literary novels, but when pressed on this point, he will only say, “As mature years came upon me, I looked back and I could see that the snobbish distinction I made in my late teens and perhaps early twenties between serious fiction and popular fiction was indeed foolish. Yet, I think it is a distinction that some of the more unimaginative critics still try to make. I would like to feel that I am writing in the main stream tradition of the English novel. My great novel loves are very much in the 19th century—Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, Trollope—and I would be unhappy to feel that some influence of theirs didn’t show somewhere in my work.” Taking stock of his present-day situation he adds, “These days I write the books I want to write without any glance either towards popularity or indeed reputation. It’s a nice situation to be in.”
By the time Reginald Hill reached the age of thirty, only some of his poetry had been published. It wasn’t until the author and his wife moved from Essex to Yorkshire that Hill found time to sit down and write Fell of Dark. “My wife stayed down in Essex to sell our house while I was camping in a Yorkshire house without any social life,” he says. “I was just starting a new job so I didn’t know anybody, and suddenly there was time to not only write, but to actually finish something I was writing. That was Fell of Dark. Curiously it opens within two-and-a-half miles from where I am presently sitting in my study. The wheel has come full circle.”
Fell of Dark, part detective story and part psychological thriller, is about a man arriving in Cumbria, and subsequently being suspected of murdering two girls. “I wrote it and sent it off,” Hill says, “and via a convergence of circumstances, which often happens in publishing, it ended up being the second of my books to be published.” This December, almost a quarter of a decade after Fell of Dark first appeared, HarperCollins will be republishing the novel in both hard- and paperback editions.
Over the years Hill has written numerous stand-alone novels, under his own name as well as under his three pseudonyms: Dick Morland, Patrick Ruell (before they married, Hill’s wife was named Patricia Ruell), and Charles Underhill. “There is a lot of variety there,” the author says of his early output. “When I started writing it was really as if I was relieved to discover that I knew I could do it, and so I was very productive in those early years. At the beginning of the 70’s I had three books published in a single year! I couldn’t manage that now, but I really just wanted to try all forms of writing.”
The pseudonyms came about after Hill’s publisher turned down a non-detective manuscript. “This was the first of the Patrick Ruell books,” the author recalls. “HarperCollins suggested that someone else might be interested in publishing it, and when I found another publisher they said, ‘Well, we think it would be a good idea for you to use a pseudonym in order not to confuse your readership.’ As my readership then consisted of my close friends, relatives and a few hundred others I didn’t think there was going to be much chance of confusing them, but being young and always afraid at that stage that the publishers would take away their money and give it to someone else, I went along with it, and this was repeated on two further occasions.”
Describing the nature of the books he wrote under the pen-names Hill says, “The Ruell books were, I suppose, thrillers in the sense that they weren’t about the investigation of a crime. They had a strong adventure element in them. Those I wrote as Charles Underhill were tongue-in-cheek historical novels, and the Dick Morlands were science fiction.”
Besides crime fiction, some of the other non-series books the author has written under his own name are war novels. “No Man’s Land is set during the first World War and it probably was my first expression of interest in the fate of the unfortunates who got shot for desertion and other alleged crimes. They were really books with an individual idea, situation or character which I felt interested in exploring at that time.”
The novels Hill is best known for are those featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel (pronounced Dee‑ell) and Sergeant (later Inspector) Peter Pascoe. As strange as it may seem sixteen instalments down the line, A Clubbable Woman was never intended to develop into a series. “It was the second book I wrote. Then I did another couple of books, probably the first of what turned out to be the Ruell books. At some point I thought ‘That chap Dalziel, there’s a bit more life in him.'”
So was Dalziel intended to be the central character? “Well no, quite the reverse in fact,” Hill says. “When I started it was Pascoe who was the main character in my mind. Pascoe was the character with whom I at that time, as the writer, identified with: youngish, graduate, the same kind of interests as myself. Andy Dalziel was much more intended to be the foil to Pascoe, the rather old fashioned, seat-of-the-pants, rather brutish, non-cerebral kind of cop, but it didn’t quite work out like that. Dalziel in concept was perhaps intended as a caricature, but I found that as I worked with him he ceased to be so. He became larger than life but not in any way false to life. They became equal in their billing and then, increasingly over the years, I had to make a conscious effort to stop Andy Dalziel from taking over completely, to retain the balance and to ensure that Peter Pascoe got his fair share of the action.”
In recent instalments Peter Pascoe has been showing signs of disenchantment with his role in the police force. It even seems that he might consider resigning. That, however, the author is adamant, will not happen. “The whole point about Pascoe is that he is very much at the centre of the books’ ongoing dynamic,” Hill says. “I think of Pascoe as being a kind of everyman, with the good and the bad angel sitting on either side of his shoulders—just as with the heroes in the old morality plays. Of course the good angel and the bad angel are interchangeable in this case, they being his wife, Ellie Pascoe, on the one side, and Andy Dalziel on the other.”
Describing the flip-sides of Pascoe’s conscience the creator says, “When she was first introduced Ellie was very suspicious of the police force and the attitudes of people like Dalziel. Dalziel of course was also a very great influence on Pascoe. From time to time Pascoe now realises that he has said or done something which is ‘Dalzielesque’, that he is beginning to think like the fat bastard. But Dalziel and Ellie have also developed. They aren’t static, and they have undergone changes in attitude as well.”
As a further indication that Peter won’t be making any drastic career changes, Reginald Hill points out that Pascoe is still very much active in law enforcement in One Small Step, his tongue-in-cheek novella set in the next century. When the first murder on the moon occurs Peter Pascoe, now the British Justice Commissioner in the EuroFed Department, brings a gouty Andy Dalziel out of retirement, and together they solve the case.
Increasingly two of the secondary characters in the Dalziel and Pascoe novels have come to the foreground. As more of Sergeant Edgar ‘Wieldy’ Wield and WPC Shirley Novello’s background is revealed, their fans can expect larger roles for both of them in the future. Of Wield and Novello the author says, “Their first appearance in the books weren’t earth shattering. They didn’t step forward as major characters, but as I wrote more about them I found myself discovering more of their background . One of the delights of writing a series is that it gives you time to take what are small characters, to look more closely at them, and to develop them further. With Wield for instance, in his first appearance he is just a remarkably ugly police sergeant. Nobody really understood quite what he was about. He was very efficient, but what went on behind his ravaged exterior no one could work out. At that point I didn’t say ‘This chap is gay and I’m hiding it for a later book’. The next time he appeared I thought ‘What are you using this exterior, this forbidding ugliness, in fact to hide?’ I realised that he was gay, and I was able to take this further. It was a fascinating idea back in the late 70’s. I don’t know what the situation of a gay cop is nowadays—an openly gay cop—but I’m certain back then it was not a very comfortable one, and this is why he kept his gayness well hidden. Over the years I have been able to let the other characters get to know him better in the same ways as I have. I don’t think I could have done that in a single book. At least not in a single Dalziel and Pascoe book, it would have had to have been about Wield and nobody else. The same applies to Novello. She initially made a brief appearance in The Wood Beyond, but there was a larger role for her in On Beulah Height which I could develop, and she will develop further. She’s another individual at large in the police force trying to come to terms with herself and the job. Exactly how characters are going to develop I don’t know in advance, and if I did I would get bored.”
The latter statement raises the question which of the two main plotting categories Reginald Hill falls into: does he decide in advance how a book will develop and end, or does he find himself as surprised as his readers by the turn of events? “I suppose both and neither,” he says almost apologetically. “There have been occasions when I have been very aware of exactly how a book was going to end, and the problem then has been to get to that end. At other times you start off with an idea without knowing how it will develop.”
Taking On Beulah Height as an example he says, “I had this idea about a sunken village in a reservoir and it coming back up and bringing the past with it. Then the other ideas started falling around it: Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder—his ‘Songs for Dead Children’, and using those songs as epigraphs to underpin this story about losing children. Gradually I started planning the book before I actually wrote bits of it. Then I started seeing that the Lieder could be much more organic, that rather than these epigraphs having an ornamental effect, that they could be incorporated in the book in a much more integral role.”
To allow him to include the song-cycle in the text, Reginald Hill translated the German lyrics into the Yorkshire idiom of one of the central characters in the book. Then he further included the factual history of the cycle in the introduction to a fictional compact disc. Hill also especially wrote a children’s story for On Beulah Height. “I added a further element of losing a child,” says Hill. “Not through abuse or abduction, but through illness. Nina and the Nix is the externalisation of what I think is every parents’ greatest fear. The Nix is a water goblin who comes out to steal children.” Initially the author wrote the story for his own point of reference, but on completion Hill realised that it might benefit readers if they had access to the tale as well.
The inclusion of lyrics, a children’s story, and interview transcripts in On Beulah Height, together with diary entries in The Wood Beyond, the previous Dalziel and Pascoe novel, go some way to explain why Reginald Hill does not feel trapped writing about series characters. Without compromising the logical development of the two policemen and their friends and family, the author transposes them into the stories he wants to tell. He admits as much himself. “For the past few years any idea I get, any area that I really want to explore, I now tend to think about in terms of plots for Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I have found the series to be incredibly elastic,” he says, not without some relief. “It’s been a gradual realisation. As the books have gone on I have extended them in all kinds of ways; in terms of theme and in the way the story has been told. It means that when I’ve got a theme I want to explore, that I can really go at it in a much more wholehearted manor because I am not having to devise and introduce totally new characters. I’ve got this steady core of people who are developing and growing, but I am totally familiar with them. The danger of any series is that familiarity can lead to staleness. We can all think of series in which the author is merely rewriting the same story and changing a bit of the plot, adding a few names here and there. Often I have enjoyed reading the same story written by some people again and again and again, but I haven’t wanted to do that myself. What I have been trying to do with Dalziel and Pascoe is to find new stories to tell, new ideas to play with, giving me the chance to use ongoing characters without being boring.”
After the appalling portrayal of Dalziel and Pascoe in the television adaptation of A Pinch of Snuff, many of Reginald Hill’s colleagues feel that he has been extremely fortunate in the more recent adaptations by the BBC. Rumour has it that Hill purposely organised an alcoholic CWA meeting on the evening of the first episode of A Pinch of Snuff. He managed to get his fellow CWA members so drunk that the few who did see the broadcast were unable to remember much the following morning. Asked if this account is true, Hill manages a beatific expression of innocence.
“Many people feel that I have been lucky with the new adaptations and I feel it as well,” he admits. “Mind you, the expert opinion was that the Yorkshire TV production would render Dalziel and Pascoe unsellable to other companies for at least five years. Since Portobello Productions and the BBC came along within that time one wonders what those expert opinions were based on.”
In hindsight it was obvious that, with Hale and Pace playing the policemen, Yorkshire TV was hoping to tap into the format of comic actors starring in successful television adaptations. The important distinction the production company failed to make was that Hale and Pace were comedians and not actors known for comic roles (which was the case with David ‘Inspector Frost’ Jason [UK] for instance).
With the much-respected Warren Clarke as Andy Dalziel and the relatively unknown Colin Buchanan as Peter Pascoe, the makers of the new feature length dramas didn’t take any risks and went for experienced performers with a wide range of acting ability.
“A question I get often these days is whether I now think of Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe,” Hill says. “The answer to that is ‘No, absolutely not.'” Whilst the author is delighted with the casting he points out that Warren Clarke is about seven stone underweight for the role of Dalziel. “But,” he adds, “I can’t imagine anyone being the ‘real’ Dalziel, or indeed the ‘real’ Pascoe. It doesn’t matter. What mattered to me was the intent of the BBC, guided by the people at Portobello, to try to get into the scripts the important elements from the books.” [UK]
Even when watching the BBC/Portobello productions of his books, it took some time before Reginald Hill could make the necessary mind swing to appreciate the adaptations. “At first I couldn’t see them as television. I was watching them as versions of my books and judging them against that. It has taken a bit of time for the understanding to sink in, but now I can sit back and enjoy the adaptations for what they are. I would still be distraught if they did anything which betrayed the characters or my plots but they haven’t. So far they are keeping in touch with me and staying true to the books.”
In the novels and feature length television episodes it is only at first glance that Andy Dalziel appears to be the foil for more sophisticated counterparts. Through experience Peter Pascoe and observant fans have come to know better. Whereas Pascoe has been relatively straightforward to understand, Dalziel is far more of a puzzle. When asked about this Reginald Hill smiles and says, “To put it at its most vulgar: if Dalziel farts at a funeral, it is not because he is a coarse, or a flatulent and insensitive man. It is because that fart at that particular moment has got some purpose. The point about Dalziel is that he never does anything without a meaning. He is a man very much in control. If you look at the way Dalziel dresses, when he first appears he is wearing an old suit which age has given a sheen, a patina of shininess, which when he scratches himself—as he does frequently, leaves the mark of his nails on the cloth. Yet when he wants to he can appear extraordinarily smart. As I reveal in one book, he has his best suits especially made from the best Bradford cloth by a very good tailor who he has got banged up for some crime in an open prison somewhere. Dalziel is no slouch or anyone’s fool, but he rarely sees the need to impress people. He influences people and he makes them move in the directions he wants them to.”
A further hint at Dalziel’s intelligence and learning is his immediate grasp of moments where someone is trying to get the better of him; he also frequently understands references people wouldn’t necessarily expect him to get the meaning of. What can Hill say about Andy Dalziel’s background? “He probably left school at fifteen, or thereabouts, before going into the police force. His father was a Scot who came down to Yorkshire and got married to Yorkshire lass, so they would have given him a great respect for education.”
That being the case, why does Dalziel give Pascoe such a hard time about being a graduate? Is it something that Dalziel envies? “It’s an interesting idea,” Hill says, seemingly uncertain himself. “Certainly he mocks, he has got that element of northern down-to-earthiness in him. He mocks the need of people to stay on at school into their twenties when they could be out doing things, but I certainly don’t think he is unappreciative of what it is possible to learn in higher education. He just doesn’t feel the need to fall over himself to show any admiration, or indeed envy, of it. Dalziel is together enough not to feel envy. He is happy with who he is, which is why he does not have any ambitions to go beyond being head of Yorkshire CID. He looks at the Assistant Chief Constable, the Deputy Chief Constable, and the Chief Constable with a rather patronising air. They think they are in charge but he knows he really is. I think it was in Child’s Play that the Assistant Chief Constable has ambitions to become Chief Constable when the latter is about to retire. That is the last thing Dalziel wanted, so he set about making damn sure that he didn’t get the job. He wouldn’t want to have someone he regards as a pratt in charge of him.”
Besides winning the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for his overall contribution to crime fiction, Reginald Hill is also the recipient of two Golden Daggers: for his novel Bones and Silence, and for his short story On the Psychiatrist’s Couch. Hill loves writing short stories but, comparing them to novels, he says, “I find that proportionately the short story takes far, far more time to write. I forget who said ‘I am writing you a long letter because I do not have time to write you a short one’, but I feel the same about short stories. I don’t have enough time to get them into the shape in which I feel happy for people to read them. One of those unfortunate things is that aspiring writers often start by writing short stories because they are short, but in fact they are the most difficult to do well.”
These days readers are most likely to find short stories in a book collection by a single author, or otherwise in anthologies. Hill’s ‘On the Psychiatrist’s Couch’ appeared in Whydunnit, The 1997 CWA Anthology, published by Severn House. Of anthologies he says, “If you have got twelve short stories in a book you will invariably find that three of them are very good; then there’s another three which are pretty good but which could have done with a bit more work; a further three which are a bit ragged really, and the author perhaps ought to have spent another couple of weeks at them; and then three which should never have been published and would never have been published had it not been for the eminent names which are attached to them. I really can’t understand how people can let some short stories go out under their names. Usually I wait until I’m invited to submit one. Someone will say ‘I’m desperate for a short story, can you help’. Only if there’s enough time, if they don’t need it for another two or three months, and if I feel that I can fit it in, will I’ll see what ideas I have scribbled down,” the author concludes.
Joe Sixsmith went through various incarnations—including a short story called Bring Back The Cat!—before he finally made his appearance in Blood Sympathy, a full-length novel. According to Reginald Hill, Joe’s first appearance was a total non-appearance. “Way back in the early 70’s, after my one and only television play—An Affair of Honour—had been broadcast, the BBC commissioned me to write another one. So I wrote something with this character called Joe Sixsmith in it. I duly got paid but, for reasons best known to the British Broadcasting Company, he never made it onto the screen. Perhaps they didn’t feel that in 1973 the great British public was ready for a black detective from the working classes who had been made redundant. Many years later, someone asked me for a short story and—nothing is ever lost with me, it stays in my mind or goes into my desk drawer—Joe Sixsmith popped into my mind. I said yes and dug out this old tv script. Of course the script was very different from the story, but I liked the character, the situation, and the title, so I wrote Bring Back the Cat!, which went down very well. Eventually it appeared in the Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, which was very flattering.”
Joe Sixsmith is about as far away as you can get from a character like Andy Dalziel. In the books it seems that nearly everyone uses the odd bit of bad language bar Joe; he won’t say anything worse than ‘shoot’. So how does a black, middle-aged, unemployed lathe worker become a private investigator in Luton? “I have always felt that that the private eye was very much something American, particular to American society. A hard-nosed gumshoe always strikes me as being a bit false in a British environment, so I didn’t want Joe to be anything like that. What I hope I have done is to invent a very engaging guy. He’s just a nice chap who wants to live and let live. Yet, there is a little bit more to him than just that. Deep down inside him he’s got a very strong sense of justice, of right and wrong. It is his reaction to being the subject of the manifest unjustness of suddenly being dumped out of your job, your livelihood, all your expectations for the future by a recession. Yet he is not resentful and doesn’t brood on it.”
Did Hill always envisage Joe as being black? “I think it was a further way of stressing differences. In the short story he walks into this very middle-class Home Counties set-up in search of a lost cat. Instead he discovers all kinds of nastinesses and ends up, of course, rescuing the cat and solving the case. The woman who hires him does so without realising what she is getting—she just picked a private detective from the Yellow Pages. When she answers the door and there is this small, balding black man in a jacket which is getting a bit faded at the edges, who announces that he is the detective, she is rather taken aback,” he says with a smile.
Before the interview draws to a close Reginald Hill gives a glimpse of what readers can expect in the near future. First up is another book featuring Joe. “The new Sixsmith called Singing the Sadness will appear in 1999. In it Joe and the chapel choir enter a competition in darkest Wales and Joe gets involved in all kinds of mayhem among the Welsh.” Not forgetting the fans of his police duo Hill concludes, “At the moment I am working on a new Dalziel and Pascoe, or would be if I wasn’t doing this interview. I won’t tell you too much about that, but certainly they go onward and I hope upward, and they will continue to do so for a long time to come.”
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1998.