The Redeemed Vicarage

John Lennard

  • Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill
    HarperCollins, 303 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 00 232392 3

There was little to suggest, twenty-odd years ago, that Superintendent Andrew Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe would develop as they have, except Reginald Hill’s unusual and wise decision never to write consecutive novels about them.[*] Their debut in A Clubbable Woman (1970) came eight years after Julian Symons had first pronounced the ‘detective story’ dead; as late as 1989 T.J. Binyon, in Murder Will Out, though finding them ‘an impressive, interesting team’, gave them only two sentences under the heading ‘Provincial Policemen’. One might as well say that Laurel and Hardy were provincial comics.

The growth of Andy Dalziel took place in metaphors of which Wodehouse would have been proud. At first only an ex-rugby player run to slabby fat, Dalziel began to burgeon in Ruling Passion (1973), after an antique dealer called Etherege, a diabetic arrested by Dalziel while injecting himself with insulin, made the substantial error of attempting a getaway by injecting Dalziel instead: ‘Etherege turned and ran, but his overfilled shop hindered rapid movement. The ceramic display case went crashing down as he blundered past. A grandfather clock by Barraclough fell into Dalziel’s path and chimed its last as the fat man trod carelessly on the disembowelled works.’ Two novels later Dalziel’s face has become ‘as heavy and ugly as a slag heap’, and his grin ‘like an advert for Jaws’; his scratching ‘the folds of his chin’ was like ‘the finger of God running along the Grand Canyon’, and his attempt to ‘roll his eyes heavenwards in ... an expression of bewildered piety ... came out more like a lecherous peek up God’s skirts’. By A Killing Kindness (1980) the metaphors themselves had begun to metamorphose:

Life was richly coloured for the fat man; full of villainy and vice, it was true, but with shifting shades and burning pigments, like Hogarthian scenes painted by Renoir.

  Pascoe understood this. ‘He detects with his balls,’ he had once told Ellie gloomily.

Dalziel’s fatness also acquired a rival, in the ugliness of one Sergeant Wield, a highly efficient and seemingly remote man whose only known vice is an addiction to the novels of Rider Haggard: ‘Sergeant Wield’s ugliness was only skin deep, but that was deep enough’; ‘Wield ... raised his eyebrows, producing an effect not unlike the vernal shifting of some Arctic landscape as the sun sets an ice-bound river flowing once more through a waste of snows.’ Wield’s unknown vice – or, in police force language, ‘liability’ – confessed to Dalziel in Child’s Play (1987), is that he is ‘uncompromisingly gay’. That a scene between two policemen, in which the ugliest man in Yorkshire confesses his gayness to the fattest man in Yorkshire, should have managed to be breathtaking and comic, and yet moving, obliging a reassessment of Wield’s remoteness and reserve as of Dalziel’s inferred prejudices, suggested the growth of Hill’s characters behind their Wodehousian metaphors; and since then Dalziel’s fatness has reached an extremity in Bones & Silence (1990), which casts him as God in a town-processional performance of the mystery plays.

The growth of Peter Pascoe, accompanied by his slow promotion to Chief Inspector, was a very different affair. In An Advancement of Learning he met, in Ruling Passion courted, and in An April Shroud married, his university and swinging-Sixties acquaintance, now a lecturer, Ellie Soper. Thinner, younger, and laconic where Dalziel is fatter, older and memorably rhetorical, Pascoe is also a graduate entrant to the police where Dalziel is an old-fashioned seat-of-the-very-broad-pants copper; and Ellie, one of the more interesting fictional portraits of a first-generation modern feminist, has a problem when she finds herself in love with and married to a rising policeman whose boss is Andy Dalziel. The strains of the miners’ strike, analysed in Under World (1988), are nearly too great for their marriage.

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[*] The Dalziel and Pascoe series, all published in paperback by HarperCollins, comprises: A Clubbable Woman (1970), An Advancement of Learning (1971), Ruling Passions (1973), An April Shroud (1975), A Pinch of Snuff (1978), A Killing Kindness (1980), Deadheads (1983), Exit Lines (1984), Child’s Play (1987), Bones and Silence (1990), and Recalled to Life (1992). Since 1970 Hill has published nine other novels under his own name, and yet others as Charles Underhill, Dick Morland and Patrick Ruell.