The better the book, so the theory goes, the worse the film. Perhaps, then, Reginald Hill should take comfort from the critical contempt heaped on the first television version of one of his novels. A Pinch of Snuff, a complex story of pornography and murder, was turned a couple of years ago on ITV into a vehicle for the dramatic talents of Hale and Pace, by common consent breathtakingly miscast as the chalk-and-cheese Yorkshire coppers Dalziel and Pascoe: while either of them might conceivably have scraped by as the blunt, earthy Dalziel, it's hard to see how anybody could have imagined one of them playing the sensitive, intellectual Pascoe.
After this, it looked as though Dalziel and Pascoe's television career had been still-born. But there were those who felt that there was mileage in the pair yet, and that there was still a chance that they might prove to be that grail of television drama producers, the new Inspector Morse. At any rate, the all-new Dalziel and Pascoe television series, which starts on BBC1 tomorrow night, features Morse-style filming production values and the by-now traditional music by Barrington Pheloung, together with scripts by Alan Plater and Malcolm Bradbury, and the strikingly well-cast pairing of Warren Clarke - though there are qualifications here, which we'll get back to later - and Colin Buchanan. If the series lives up to its credentials, we may have to think about this good book/ bad film business again.
Whatever happens to the TV version, though, it's unlikely that it will have much effect on Hill. His demands on life, he says, are not great ("As long as I have a comfortable house to live in... wine on my table, malt whisky in my sideboard, what more could a man ask?"). And his literary reputation is, at present, pretty well unassailable. After more than 20 years of writing about Dalziel and Pascoe, in the 1990s his critical stock has soared. Bones and Silence (1990), the last D&P book but one, won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year; its successor, Recalled to Life (1992 - he always leaves a two-year gap between Dalziel and Pascoe books), was shortlisted; last year he was awarded the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime contribution to the genre, which puts him in company with Dick Francis, John Le Carre and Ruth Rendell, among others. And reviews are becoming more and more respectful - reaching a zenith in a several-thousand word eulogy in the London Review of Books by John Lennard, a don whose main claim to fame is a study of the exploitation of parentheses in English literature.
There's little doubt as to the central attraction of the Dalziel and Pascoe books: it's the character of Superintendent Andy Dalziel himself - a monstrously fat, rude and thick-skinned ogre of a man, whose loutish exterior conceals (naturally) a shrewd grasp of human psychology. This wasn't the way things were planned; when Hill wrote the first novel, A Clubbable Woman (also the first episode of the TV series), in 1970, he had no idea of it forming the basis of a series, and the central figure of the young and academically inclined Pascoe was, to a large degree, conceived as a reflection of the grammar-school and Oxford-educated Hill.
Over the years, however, Dalziel's part has swollen, and his girth has swollen in proportion - as often as not he is referred to as the Fat Man or, in reported speech, "that fat bastard". It's this that creates the slight doubt about the casting of Warren Clarke: a marvellous actor, who projects all Dalziel's surliness and arrogance without trouble, but is he big enough? This massive physical presence is not simply a matter of being overweight; like Falstaff, the Fat Man's size is taken to imply extraordinary appetites - so that it's not simply his waistline but his mouth that has become a source of wonder. Even in his youth, described in flashback in Recalled to Life, he's pictured as possessing "heavy lips pulled back from yellowing teeth in the anticipatory rictus of a hungry bear". In a sequence from Hill's new book, The Wood Beyond, an onlooker is astonished by the way the Fat Man devours a meal: "There was no impression of gluttony, no overfilling of or overspilling from the mouth (which would indeed have been difficult given the cetacean dimensions of that maw), just a simple procession of food through the marble portals of his teeth, a short rhythmic manducation, and a swallow which hardly registered on the massy column of his oesophagus."
You can't help noticing here Hill's weakness for obscure words. Usually he stays this side of comprehensibility, but every so often you come across one (elenctic, flarch, melopeponic, bubaline) that sends you scurrying to the dictionary; the combination of classical roots and northern dialect reflects his own upbringing, at Carlisle Grammar School and Oxford.
The other thing you might remark is that Dalziel is characterised in both passages as some kind of beast, a bear or a whale. It's a recurring theme: at various places through the oeuvre he is compared to a bull, a bear or a really big dog. He has animal habits, too - scratching his balls, rubbing his buttocks against a car, farting unrestrainedly. It's not surprising that when the young constable Pascoe first meets his future mentor, an incident described in a 1994 novella, The Last National Serviceman, he thinks of him as an animal, possessed of nothing more than an animal's cunning.
Pascoe's education - the process by which he comes to respect Dalziel's combination of intellect and instinct - is one of the emotional cruxes of the series (the other being Pascoe's relationship with his wife, Ellie, a hardline liberal with an inbuilt distrust of the police). There's nothing particularly new in this - the tough old cop and the idealistic rookie learning mutual respect is the stuff of a thousand cop movies; what is unique to Hill is the way that these domestically scaled relationships are grounded within society. The loose geography of Mid-Yorkshire, a fictional region that seems to drift alarmingly within the confines of the real-life county, has provided Hill with the material for a sustained exploration of the structures and institutions that shape British social life - town councils, amateur dramatic groups, Rotary clubs, rugby clubs, youth clubs, colleges.
Sometimes the political analysis veers towards the simplistic - The Wood Beyond contains an analogy between the slaughter of the Somme and the treatment of animals, which artistically is carried through well, but morally is a non-starter. It's arguable, though, that in the Dalziel and Pascoe books Hill has managed the feat, surely unique in this country, of infusing traditional detective fiction forms with political awareness; and that he has, too, achieved a richness of emotional texture and an individuality of language rare in genre writing. "I set out," Hill says, "to test to destruction the confines of the series novel, and so far I don't seem to have arrived at that. I'm sure that one of these days I will perhaps explode the whole thing, but at the moment I've found that anything I want to do I've been able to do within those confines." So far, the explosion looks a long way off; when it comes, it ought to be a big one.
n `Dalziel and Pascoe' starts tomorrow night, 8.05pm BBC1; `The Wood Beyond' is published by HarperCollins, pounds 14.99
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