Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Comfort reading in times of crisis

At times one is in need of some comfort reading and I do rather turn to a mystery story.

I recently looked out my very depleted pile of Reginald Hills (lent out – almost every one), so to be totally indulgent I decided to buy an old favourite (this is easy if you own a bookshop). Being able to choose any of them, I spent some time reacquainting myself with ‘Bones and Silence’.

Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe stories have never seemed to have quite achieved the devoted followings so many detective writers enjoy, but they are my favourites, so I was very saddened to hear when Reginald Hill died earlier this year.

The two main characters are not instantly lovable, but few cops in detective fiction are. But they are unique in being a genuine double act, not just a chief and assistant.

With long-serving characters you need time to get to know them and I have been a fan for a long time. But it is the plots that I particularly enjoy. I hope Hill will be remembered as the master of the oh-so-subtle, but oh-so-clever mystery.

‘Bones and Silence’ is a stunning mystery. The sleight of hand is so assured you are not even sure where or what the mystery is until the final chapters when everything comes into focus.

It is full of trademark Hill: wrong-footing; well-timed humour; sharp social observations and almost-author-intervention as he comments on how the characters are faring in the story. They are probably not the main traits one tends to associate with crime fiction writing, but that’s probably the appeal for me. Light on gore and action. It feels like writing from an old friend.

‘Bones and Silence’ is full of the things I love about Hill’s stories. Clever, university-educated Peter Pascoe always doubts his boss, Dalziel, is ever as clever as he makes out. So when Dalziel reckons he witnessed a murder, Pascoe spends his time trying (he thinks) to stop Dalziel making a fool of himself.

Dalziel, on the other hand, never underestimates Pascoe, tells him to concentrate his time on another suspected crime and bludgeons his way to the truth while Pascoe can only look helplessly on. He’s shocked at the end to acknowledge what he never wants to admit – that Dalziel is the smarter of the two.

We watch as the pair turn in ever decreasing circles, until it all comes clear what has really been going on. Just in time to watch Pascoe see all his certainty disappearing like mist. And of course the reader suddenly realises he should have spotted what was clear from the first moment. Only Hill muddies the waters so beautifully you never realise what you have seen until Dalziel points it all out to you.

‘Bones and Silence’ was also the first of Hill’s to win a ‘Gold Dagger’ award for crime fiction, so I’m obviously not alone in appreciating its qualities.

I first came across a Dalziel and Pascoe novel (as I remember) when I was a student, rummaging in a second hand book shop and drew out ‘Pictures of Perfection’ in which (as I remember), he kills off all his main characters within the first few chapters. Now let’s see you get out of that one, I thought. And he does, with breathtaking skill.

I did have the privilege to meet him once, not long ago. After having been a fan for so long and never having met him, I noticed he was making a rare appearance at the Harrogate Crime Fiction Festival. I organised long-distance transport, the children to be looked after and the shop covered (none of which are easy when you run a bookshop).

In hindsight I am so glad that we went to quite so much trouble, even though it felt we were being slightly mad at the time. I got to shake him by the hand.

I didn’t say how much I wanted to thank him for giving me so very many years of superb reading pleasure. I know I wanted to. But I remember pushing my book towards him for signing with a rather inane grin and probably mumbling something inadequate.

But at least I did get to meet him and I will always have that signed book to treasure.

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