How to get washed up with the survivors: Peter Guttridge talks to Reginald Hill, creator of some classic and extraordinary private eyes

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The Independent Culture
REGINALD HILL - crime, mystery, science fiction, history and thriller writer - lives about 15 miles down the road from the nuclear power station at Sellafield in Cumbria. When he took early retirement from a teacher training college, he could have lived anywhere. He chose to live here. 'It somehow seems appropriate for a crime writer,' he says.

Since 1970, under his own name and as Patrick Ruall, Dick Morland and Charles Underhill, Hill has written over 30 novels, two collections of short stories and several radio plays. Thirteen of the 'Reginald Hill' novels have featured the Yorkshire detectives Adam Dalziel (pronounced De-ell) and Peter Pascoe.

Dalziel (large, loud, often loutish) and Pascoe (a social sciences graduate with radical wife) have not yet graced the television screen, so Hill is not as widely known as he might be. However, among crime fiction lovers and his peers in the Detective Club, the Crime Writers Association and the Mystery Club of America, he is celebrated for putting a spin on the classic murder mystery.

His mystery novels are intricately plotted, beginning with a number of disparate strands which he weaves together into whole cloth by the final chapter. In the best of them, such as Bones and Silence, An April Shroud or Recalled to Life, even when you think he has given you all the answers, there is always one more thing he tells you that you didn't realise you didn't know.

'Plot is the basis of narrative interest,' Hill says, 'the force that drives the reader along paths which seem totally mysterious ahead, but which appear clear as day behind. It is easy to mystify. The good mystery writer's real skill lies in clarification.'

At 57, the Hartlepool-born, Carlisle-bred son of a professional footballer is a tall, thin-faced, white- bearded man. The former teacher and college lecturer has a deliberate way of talking, in an accent that crosses Doncaster - where he lived for some years - with Cumbria. His latest novel, Blood Sympathy, is his first full- length work to feature the balding, black, middle-aged, redundant lathe operator turned private eye, Joe Sixsmith. Much lighter than the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, Blood Sympathy is a jokey adventure set in - uh, Luton.

'In a couple of short stories about Joe I put him in a high rise in Luton. Now I'm stuck with him there,' Hill says. 'But, as I explain in the foreword to the book, I've never actually visited the place. So in the way that I invented mid-Yorkshire, I've invented Luton. It remains to be seen what the good citizens of Luton think about that.'

As it is so different from the Dalziel and Pascoe books, didn't Hill think of using a pseudonym for the Sixsmith novel? 'I get a bit aggrieved and self-justificatory talking about pseudonyms,' he says. 'First, publishers say: use a different name so as not to confuse your readers. Now, they say: use a different name, but we'll be damned sure they know it's you by saying 'Reginald Hill writing as . . .' ' In consequence, only one pseudonym, Patrick Ruell (his wife's maiden name is Ruell) remains on active service.

Although he is already working on another Joe Sixsmith novel, Hill has not abandoned his other heroes. He has just posted the new Dalziel and Pascoe book, Pictures of Perfection, to his agent. 'It's very English, I invented the whole history of a village. A lot of what will seem wholly irrelevant about the Middle Ages and the 18th century will turn out to be very relevant.'

The characters of both Dalziel and Pascoe have developed since they first appeared in Hill's debut novel, A Clubbable Woman, in 1970 - although Hill has had to stretch time to prevent Dalziel sinking into his dotage.

'When I started I was more inclined towards Pascoe, because I wanted to write about someone like me who might have joined the police after university,' says Hill, who followed National Service with reading English at St Catherine's, Oxford. 'Dalziel has shouldered his way centre stage, however.'

Pascoe once summed up his view of the world as 'life is a sorrow and a mystery'. Dalziel's is more pragmatic: 'Life is a series of wrecks. Make sure you get washed up with the survivors.'

Dalziel often comes across as a stage-Yorkshiremen - blunt, beefy and boorish. 'But he can also be sensitive, charming and courteous. He isn't two-dimensional, he's six-dimensional,' Hill argues. 'And really Dalziel and Pascoe are one person. I'd like to be Pascoe but Dalziel is always there waiting to burst out.'

For many years, Yorkshire Television have held the rights to the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Hill has always seen actor Brian Blessed as the perfect Dalziel. Recently, filming finally began on A Pinch of Snuff as a pilot for a prospective series. In it, the detectives are played by comedians Hale and Pace. Hill is diplomatic. 'I was rather surprised at first, but I think it might just come off,' he says.

Hill doesn't pause between novels - 'that's when writer's block might strike' - but he has slowed his output over the years. 'When my first novel was accepted it was as if a block had been removed. I had two published in 1971 and three in 1972. I didn't wait for the heavy thud as the manuscript came back through the door - I started the next one. I look back and I can't think where I got the energy for it all.'

Even though he has slowed down, he remains an obsessive who writes far too much and claims he would like to hang on to each of his books an extra four years in order to perfect them. 'I write on a need-to-know basis and my need to know is much greater than that of the readers,' he says. 'So I write hundreds of pages too much and then cut it down. Also, with my kind of novel you're always writing backwards. You reach a point and you see you should have put something in 17 chapters earlier. You pull on a thread and find you've unravelled the whole thing.'

Hill has noticed a change in crime fiction lately. 'I think crime books are getting very glum - reflecting the times we live in. I've tried to snap out of this downward spiral of tone in both the Sixsmith and Pictures of Perfection. I certainly want to affirm at least the possibility of a happy life.'

Perhaps his optimism is the reason Hill, applauded for bringing realism to crime fiction, has rarely approached the question of police corruption. He hedges. 'There is obviously a huge gap between my police and real police,' he says. 'For example, your ordinary good, honest CID man probably investigates two murders in his entire career. Crime writers act as very good PRs for the police - presenting them as decent, likeable chaps with high levels of intelligence and great inductive powers. I don't feel guilty about this.'

He has nothing nasty to say about crime writers either. 'We're a friendly lot,' he says. 'We get all the bad stuff out of our systems in our books. If you want knives in the back and blood on the carpet - go to the Romantic Writers' Convention.'

(Photograph omitted)