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.

The nine novels which preceded Under World had also been growing in excellence in the use of epigraphs. An Advancement of Learning (1971), set in Ellie’s college, deployed Bacon as a commentary on both character and plot (‘With arts voluptuary, I couple practices jovially; for the deceiving of the senses is one of the pleasures of the senses.’) He is also used throughout the book as a sounding-board for the self-conscious and idealistic aspirations which characterise the ivory towers of education as much as the classically isolated loci of detection. Subsequent novels experimented with quotations, both embedded and epigraphic, from Pope, Keats, Marcus Aurelius and Marvell; and Deadheads (1983) broke new ground. Deadheading, of roses aesthetically and of people conveniently, is the donné of the plot, and the poets are raided for their words on roses to preface each section; but the chapter titles and epigraphs are the names and catalogue descriptions of roses. In the novel the isolation of a rose-garden, the luxurious vice of gardening, the reader’s consciousness of literary cultivation taking place amid generic borders, all summon a broad background of traditions and values which are tested against the sharply contemporary commitments to self, job and marriage of the suspect and the Pascoes. Ellie’s testing friendship with Mrs Suspect, intensifying the conflicts of morality and loyalty, of personal belief and legal proof, was followed in Exit Lines (1984) by the testing of Peter’s friendship with and professional confidence in Dalziel: the plot is drawn around dying words suggesting a guilt of Dalziel’s; the epigraphs are all literally famous last words (in Sidney Smith’s case, ‘Bring me all the blotting paper there is in the house’), which constantly iterate the central questions of report, veracity and unknowable preoccupation. Every novel since has engaged its detective and narrative structure to an identified theme or source – the mystery plays, A Tale of Two Cities, and now Jane Austen’s letters (‘Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked.’)

In retrospect, the Baconian epigraphy of An Advancement of Learning also staked a claim to the inheritance of Dorothy Sayers. Polarised opinions about Wimsey are common, but Sayers’s structural achievement in Gaudy Night, her novel of manners and Oxford, has not been well understood. Modern detective fiction may be schematically divided, pace Binyon, into stories of the professional (police) and the amateur: the categories correspond approximately to Symons’s ‘crime novel’ and ‘detective story’, which latter he has been eager to declare obsolete beyond redemption. But other schemata are possible, such as the ‘English’ and ‘American’ varieties (though both sorts are written in both places). The English model, as famously discussed by Auden in his essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, is essentially hermetic (the country weekend, the Orient Express) and the American essentially hermeneutic (the random attack with infinite suspects, the quandary of the police). As the detective story became in its ‘Golden Age’ strictly and formulaically hermetic, the English variety of the genre withered (as Symons insists), in interest if not in sales. But it is here that what I call the ‘talismanic village’ came in. The talismanic village must not be mistaken for the simple English village which provided all the Miss Marples with their two hours’ traffick of our stage. In that stereotypical village (‘Mayhem Parva’ someone called it) live the country-weekend guests demoted a class or two and billeted soap-operatically among a chorus of rustics, their isolation from the ‘real’ world complete; but talismanic villages are protected only by porous membranes, and the outside world can and does break in upon them.

Such places, like Arden, are associated with genres in extremis: made overtly unreal by parading their accumulated conventions, they have the magical and consciously literary ability to allow characters to transcend the reader’s, author’s and genre’s normal parameters of plausibility, and the redemptive hermeneutics which mark the talismanic village find life in the very centre of its hermetically-damned shadow. Other and later writers than Sayers, equally cornered by the extreme conservatism of Golden Age detection, have tried their hands at these villages – Allingham’s versions in Suffolk, and Anthony Price’s Duntisbury Royal in Gunner Kelly – but it was Sayers who truly saw the way, and rather than trying to build such a village from scratch, simply borrowed Oxford. In so doing she mapped onto one another the hermetics of the detective story, of the dreaming spires, and (via the epigraphs) of literary self-reference.

As had happened to lesser degrees in the strange East Anglian isolation of The Nine Tailors and the Post-Modern setting of Murder Must Advertise, the effect was to breed in the shell of the detective story a novel of ideas sought in the manners of conversation. It was through the conversation of characters fretfully aware (in Wimsey’s words) that their ‘kind of show is dead and done for’, but struggling with their own well-written emotions, that Sayers found the mimetic charge to make, from the hermetic, the hermeneutic: a means of transcending the genre. Oxford, and the idea of Oxford, Shrewsbury College built on Balliol’s cricket pitch, perfectly unreal, are also perfectly real, their students (like Jude Fawley, and all tourists) simultaneously aware of both qualities; just as Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in Oxford, feel the attraction and know the impossibility of turning away from the world towards its ivory simulacra. The beautiful and ornately carved ivory chessmen which Harriet is sufficiently Oxford-intoxicated to accept as a gift from Peter, are smashed Gaudy Night’s villain, their fragments malevolently ground underfoot; and the novel both requires and earns the destruction, ivory to dust, which allows Peter and Harriet to grow in time together. The whole is bound together by the rich Renaissance epigraphs, from Shakespeare, Burton, Spenser, and Dekker, William Turner and Pierre Erondell, Drayton and Sidney, which like the buildings of the university town marshal a reader’s progress and whisper, in their proportions and through their gargoyles, of older traditions than our own, and less happy endings than the reader is offered in the main plot.

In as much as Busman’s Honeymoon (incomparably the funniest of Sayers’s novels) does continue the story it relocates the talismanic village not to the fictional setting but to the ethical and emotional territory established by Peter’s and Harriet’s marriage. Sayers ceased to find detective fiction spiritually rewarding, and Wimsey’s honeymoon is only a coda to a story that ended with his marriage; but the story has in a sense been continued by Reginald Hill, for the difficulty in Busman’s Honeymoon – husband and wife enmeshed in conflicts between public and private integrity – is exactly what dogs the marriage of Peter and Ellie Pascoe. Each stands, in their own right and with professional commitment, for beliefs about enlargement and containment, education and policing, which their quotidian lives naturally bring into conflict. Between their equally partial and persuasive positions, and the tragicomic force majeure of Dalziel’s fat patience and sudden rages, the reader is tested and engaged, and the novels come properly and unpredictably alive.

Most of the series was written while Hill was living in Doncaster, and Dalziel was from the beginning the head of ‘Mid-Yorks’ CID. This additional administrative riding, dotted with typically named villages, and centred on an expanded market town, served well as a sort of permanent if low-powered talismanic village; and though Mid-Yorks tellingly lacked a city, an unnamed Sheffield proved perfectly borrowable when urban facilities were for whatever reason required. But the fragility of the balance was sorely tested by Hill’s need, as a crime writer living in Yorkshire, to respond to Peter Sutcliffe: and the mystery of the Ripper, in 1978-81, was the incomprehensibility of his motive and the possible guilt of almost every man. This is, oddly enough, the situation of Gaudy Night writ large and terribly and male, but Hill’s attempt to encompass a serial killer, in A Killing Kindness (1980), is as such a failure. Unlike the other fictions which have measured up to serial killing, Ellroy’s Silent Terror or Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Hill’s novel becomes progressively more traditional as the murderer’s motivation is made literarily comprehensible (and as the quotations from Hamlet increase). By other standards A Killing Kindness is successful, as well-written as always, and it dips intriguingly into the ghost story, of which Hill is a minor master: but as a talismanic village Mid-Yorks did not deal well with the urgency and reality of the Ripper, and the intensive development of epigraphs and structure which characterised the next three novels felt in some ways like a retreat to a more orderable world.

It was not a lengthy retrenchment. Hill had just started Under World when the miners’ strike began, and the novel went on hold for several years. What emerged, in 1988, returned directly to Sayers for its epigraphy, to her translation of Dante; and the closely woven relations of title, epigraphs, motifs and location came brilliantly together in a brooding and far-reaching consideration of loss and darkness. In the pit-village of Burrthorpe, before the strike, a child went missing, her disappearance attributed to a child-killer caught elsewhere; and a few months later another man died in old workings. Now, as a shaken and wary police force tries to re-establish itself in the village, once almost a no-go area, a deputy is murdered underground, and the chief suspect is a young miner whom Ellie Pascoe has been teaching. The notorious paternoster at Sheffield University is figured against the pithead winding-gear and its cages, an infernal rosary counting the men down into the dark, and carrying splinters of darkness back into the village. Through Ellie’s impulsive and maritally trouble-causing visits to Burrthorpe, the social consequences of the strike, particularly the organisation and politicisation of women in a culture which had been resistantly chauvinist, are brought into the heart of the novel; and the pain of strikebound families is placed against the agonies of bereavement, and the despairing embarrassments Peter and Ellie inflict on one another. The talismanic village, still imaginary and real, still turning away from the world outside so far as it can, is Burrthorpe itself:

Burrthorpe was a frontier town, not in the geographic, political sense, but in terms of its monogenesis, its cultural separateness, its awareness of constant threat. Its inhabitants had put down roots in a unique sense. Deep beneath the streets and houses lay the reason for their existence, the hope of their continuance. When finally the coal was exhausted or adjudged too expensive to be worth the hewing, Burrthorpe would literally be cut off from its roots and die.

If Under World was a more-than-coal-fired Inferno, the two novels since, Bones and Silence and Recalled to Life, have been Purgatorios, and with Pictures of Perfection Hill has reached a benevolently ironic Paradiso. Enscombe’s parish church, whose vicarage the Church Commissioners wish to have profitably but unpleasantly redeveloped, is ‘of St Hilda and St Margaret’. The ‘double patriotic dedication’ is one of many satirical jests that connect Pictures of Perfection to the anti-Thatcherite elements in Under World that value people more than political or economic creeds; but the genre to which this detective story is engaged is Janeite comedy. In 1979 Hill published a short, scurrilous and satisfying sequel to Emma; here, because the epigraphs are from Austen’s letters, and include some of her trenchant literary self-analyses, it is the whole problem and pleasure of novels on fragments of ivory, detective novels of manners, that Hill posits as his ground of composition.

The reflection that Hungerford, where Michael Ryan murdered 16, is close to the border of Janeite Hampshire is not excluded; Pictures of Perfection can be read as Hill’s oblique return to the problem unsolved by A Killing Kindness, a return made in a comic mode that equips Mid-Yorks with a talismanic village of its own for a Ryan to attack, Enscombe is a decidedly odd place:

The Bishop sipped his Screwdriver and said, ‘Old Charley used to claim, when the port had been round a few times, that after the Fall God decided to have a second shot, learning from the failure of the first. This time He created a man who was hard of head blunt of speech, knew which side his bread was buttered on, and above all took no notice of women. Then God sent him forth to multiply in Yorkshire. But after a while he got worrying he’d left something out: imagination, invention, fancy, call it what you will. So he grabbed a nice handful of this, intending to scatter it thinly over the county. Only it was a batch He’d just made and it was still damp, so instead of scattering, it all landed in a single lump, and that was where they built Enscombe!’

Worse, as the late Reverend Cage’s History of the parish helpfully opines, Enscombe is a typical Hampshire name, not at all a Yorkshire one: the etymology may be from Enna’s Combe, ‘suggesting a connection with the Sicilian vale where Proserpine, gathering flowers, herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis was gathered’, or from OE entisc cuma, ‘the monstrous visitor’. Nor does the motto of the local squires, the Guillemards, help much; Fuctata non Perfecta.’ Fuctata means painted or rouged, and by extension forged or counterfeit. It’s either feminine singular or neuter plural. Thus the family will tell you it means either things which are painted cannot be perfect, or a rouged woman has got something to hide.’ The motto is variously translated: by the villagers as ‘we’re not perfect, we’re a bunch of phonies’ and ‘fuck you, Jack, we’re all right’; by the Reverend Cage as ‘it’s better to be painted than perfect’; and by Squire Selwyn Guillemard as ‘Life can be a bastard.’ The plot proves every translation.

In this Yorkshire fairytale village – with a pub named after William Morris and architecture to match, a school, green and vicarage under threat of redevelopment, a rewardingly eccentric and talented population, and more than its share of legends – the boundaries of fact and fiction, like those of genre, do not always seem relevant. The whole fabric of this world is literary, and Hill is able to have the Ancient Mariner draw a bead on the kingfisher from ‘Burnt Norton’ and find in quite another way both that kingfisher-killing is a felony and the still point of the turning world. In literary density and philosophical intelligence the novel rivals The Name of the Rose, though it is less gothic, and more interested in happiness than heresy. Pictures of Perfection is also a testimony to Hill’s continuation of Sayers’s dialogue with the English form of detective fiction, not least in the marvellous and broad alertness, the faith, which Hill brings to his engagement with a variant of the genre still frequently declared dead and damned, but here resurrected and redeemed. Read him.

[*] 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.