#569: A Killing Kindness (1980) by Reginald Hill

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At some point in the 1980s, Britain started pumping out crime fiction by authors who literary darlings could feel smug about admitting they slum it with: Colin Dexter, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and today’s experiment, Reginald Hill, among others — authors I’ve sampled here and there and who generally leave me cold.  My precise objection to them is difficult to pin down, but they seem to me to be forcing upon the genre a staid acceptability it neither needed nor flourishes under, and that’s something I can’t get further into without reading more of it…and, well, I’m reluctant to do that.  A Killing Kindness (1980) perfectly exemplifies why.

I picked this, the sixth case for Hill’s much-admired duo of Dalziel and Pascoe, because a promise was made by someone — I have a feeling it was Sergio, a most trustworthy soul — of some audacity in its solution, and so misgivings were cast aside and off I went.  And Sergio is indeed correct — the trick Hill plays here is audacious in a quite staggering way…but it’s also a kind of clever-clever gamesmanship that thinks it’s more brilliant than it really is, pales in comparison to the intelligence of the genre that preceded it, and doesn’t pay out in the way Hill seems to think it does.  At the end of a fifteen-page short story, perhaps; 371 pages of novel, however, need to be set upon firmer foundations.

Hill, though, does write some wonderful stuff.  Following a series of stranglings being established with a brevity that most of today’s ‘suspense’ authors would do well to study, a confusion around the invoking of a spirit medium sees an unimpressed Superintendent Andy ‘The Fat Man’ Dalziel “raising a huge right hand which was attempting to squeeze the printing ink out of a rolled up copy of the local newspaper” while DI Peter Pascoe enjoys Sergeant Wield looking on in horror:

“Sergeant.”

“Sir!”

“Oh, stop standing there as if you’d crapped yourself,” said Dalziel wearily.

“Think I may have, sir,” said Wield.

From here, with the sort of vividness that paints masterful pictures like “the Bay Tree Inn, a half-timbered former coaching inn not far from the city centre which had fallen into the hands of a large brewery group renowned for the acuteness of their commercial instincts and the awfulness of their keg beer”, we progress into the story of the investigation and the various people pulled into it…and it’s on about page 40 that the wheels fall off.

Literary vividness is one thing, plotting is another, and many an author has discovered that the two are not necessarily as miscible as one might suspect (or perhaps “hope” is closer).  To pull in not just a serial strangler but also Ellie Pascoe’s pregnancy — thrown in seemingly for a penultimate-chapter nothing of no consequence or interest — and burgeoning role in a local feminist society, plus a Romany presence at the fairground where one victim was possibly attacked (which stirs up the hackles of a persecuted minority once the people there fall under suspicion) drags us in a few too many directions.  It’s not helped by the fact that, audacity aside, if you can’t spot the killer at their first appearance — Hill tries to do a thing that far too many authors still try under the impression it’s clever, and it’s not and probably hasn’t been since the 1930s — then I have a bridge in a European capital city you might want to purchase.

And, good heavens, doesn’t it ever feel like a Sunday afternoon television programme, from its sedate pacing to the way everyone seems to be so shocked (shocked!) and appalled (apalled!) by Dalziel’s blunt force trauma of a personality, and the way Hill then tried to pull conciliatory branches over the damage by having Dalziel out of nowhere that it’s all a show to make people underestimate him and therefore overreach themselves.  For a novel in which four murders occur and there’s time for the police to run several false leads to ground in pursuit of the killer, there isn’t half a lot of sitting in bars having dull conversations about politics, or watching a married couple argue about whether “head master” or “head teacher” is the correct terminology. Obviously personal taste plays a part, but the dated aspects of this feel so much more like a genre trying to prove its worth as a legitimate reflection of society than one that simply knows it’s clever an gets on with it.

And it might not matter so much if the payoff of this startling revelation were more meaningful.  It spoils nothing to say that it leads to the arrest of, and confession by, the guilty party, and that person is then taken to court…but there’s absolutely no way that the information as provided would be considered secure enough grounds for a court case.  Maybe you could get away with this sort of thing prior to the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service (founded in 1986, it transpires), but the policeman who went into court brandishing the starting point of their investigation as the point that put them onto the guilty party would have more front than a stadiumful of Andy Dalziels.  For the much-vaunted verisimilitude that gave the genre this newfound respectability, one feels it’s rather more a case of time making more converts than reason; in short, it’s bullshit.

9781504057929_p0_v1_s550x406On aggregate, then, I’m unconvinced.  After, as I say, 15 pages, I would have hooted with delight and gone on about how glorious and bold the trick used here is.  Instead, this seems like a sort of silly-season experiment of a genre that had been far more serious, and far more exploratory, but is dumbing down so that the mainstream will pay attention to it, give it a pat on the head, and start buying its books under the impression they’re being clever.  Hill has some lovely turns of phrase, and the 1980s trappings here — like the clod-hoppingly cloth-eared feminism he has his characters espouse — are not, let’s be clear, why this falls down: I’m aware that printed media dates, so don’t say I’ve objected to this because it’s so 1980s.  I’ve objected to it because its redolent of the atmosphere of a time that did no favours to the brilliance that preceded it, while under the impression that it was building stronger, better, smarter books.  If that happens to have happened in the 1980s, well, so be it.

~

See also

Jose Ignacio @ A Crime is Afoot: Hill is a highly talented writer and with a good sense of humour. The story plot is clever and is nicely crafted. As the series progresses, it is worth noting that the main characters gain in depth and are far from turning into stereotypes. I trust that A Killing Kindness will make you have a good time if you read it.

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: I know I enjoyed it the first time, but this time round, I could see that there’s a lot of red herring here. There are two very clear indications of the murderer’s identity, and I think the non-memorable one was actually pretty obvious (and also should raise questions in the Yorkshire police force). But, as I said, I enjoyed it immensely the first time round, so I guess it’s the benefit of inside knowledge that made it obvious to me this time.

19 thoughts on “#569: A Killing Kindness (1980) by Reginald Hill

    • I read A Clubbable Woman and And Advancement of Learning back in the early 2000s when I was tearing holus bolus through modern crime writing. Didn’t love ’em, but I appreciate that the era (both theirs and mine) could well have played a part. On this evidence, I’m now in no rush to return.

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  1. No, this is one of Hill’s lesser books. He really hit his stride in the nineties, with a series of astonishingly clever, playful, literate, and mature novels. Recalled to Life (the sixties via Dickens); Pictures of Perfection (an Austenish romantic comedy that opens with a massacre); The Wood Beyond (World War I via Andrew Marvell); On Beulah Height (probably his masterpiece – missing children, drought, and Mahler, with a humdinger of a clue); and Dialogues of the Dead (serial killers and wordplay).

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    • Ah, good to know — thanks, Nick. So much of what I’ve read around this talks about how Classic Hill it is, and how it’s one of the strongest, etc, etc, that to come away as deflated as I did really would have put me off.

      Serial Killers and Wordplay sounds like my kinda thing (in a fictional, reading sense, y’understand), so I’ll try to keep Dialogues of the Dead in mind when the itch to revisit this sort of thing comes back. And if anyone has any Rendell recommendations, too, I’ll put them in a list for similar “maybe, one day consideration.

      Don’t recommend any Dexter, though, thanks; have never understood the popularity of his writing or central character.

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      • Don’t give up on Hill! Hill’s best books are different from his ’70s and ’80s police procedurals.

        Have you read Terry Pratchett? Hill’s best books are basically the crime novel equivalent of Discworld. (Hill was a Pratchett fan.)

        Dexter’s the hyperintellectual Ronald Knox type puzzle writer of his day. Morse is sleazy, but there are some brilliant plots. Dead of Jericho, Nicholas Quinn, Wench is Dead, Secret of Annexe 3, and Riddle of the Third Mile all have really clever things in them.

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        • Well, as I say, I’m sure I’ll get the itch at some point and come back to Hill. Hopefully I’ll find more to enjoy in his later, more mature stuff…watch this space.

          Was a huge Pratchett fan in my teens; don’t see the link between the two yet, but I’ll trust you!

          Dexter, well, I know a great many people apparently love him. But I’ve read seven or eight of his novels and only really found anything good in The Wench is Dead. At his worst — cf. The Way Through the Woods — I find both author and Morse simply unbearable.

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          • During my early days as a mystery reader, I read a handful of Hill’s novels, but the only one that stuck with me is On Beulah Heights and particularly remember that humdinger of a clue. I don’t recall much about Dialogues of the Dead except for that unexpected epilogue and there’s an impossible murder with an original trick in the TV adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight. However, I don’t remember there was a locked room in the book, which, to be honest, didn’t hold my interest at the time.

            Anyway, I look forward to your review of Fearn’s Death in Silhouette! Hopefully, you’ll be able to appreciate what he tried to do with the locked room in that one.

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  2. I’ve only read one or two novels by Hill – they tend to be quite huge with multiple things going on, so I can’t quite recall if the two plot lines in my mind belong to the same novel or not. 😅 The one title I remember is “Dialogues of the Dead”, and my sentiments echo yours for “Killing Kindness”. It was simply too long for a just about ok mystery. 😅😅 It was quite well-written, but I’m afraid I don’t read mystery novels primarily for their literary qualities.

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    • I have a feeling we typically go for the same sorts if things in our mysteries, so this is unlikely to be your up of tea. As to Dialogues, I’ll not be rushing out to read it, but it’ll be interesting to compare your perspective with Nick’s if/when I do eventually get to it. Not being stmpatherltic to this school of crime writing, I can believe Hill might be beyond me, but I do so hate writing anything off witgoutgiving it a go — and that generally worked out well for self-published stuff, so I can’t abandon the philosophy now!

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      • Yes, I don’t think I’ll like “Killing Kindness”; my few forays into P.D. James and Reginald Hill has not encouraged me to dig further. 😞

        This is in part a matter of taste – the sort of mystery novel – but also in part a matter of attention span – how long the novel is. Unless it’s a Victorian novel, or a novel I’m reading for literary merit or for a particular topic – I dislike lengthy works.

        The only few long mystery novels I’ve tolerated, possibly enjoyed, were the ones by Anthony Horowitz, Robert Galbraith, as well as “Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”.

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        • I generally don’t mind long SF novels, since the time is often spent world-building. Crime novels usually be one overlong because they want to draw in so many ingredients, most of which don’t typically contribute anything. Plots either become overstuffed and you’re dragged in too many directions, or they’re short on content so you get pages and pages of nothing.

          So, yeah, we agree 😊

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  3. Hill is, I think, one of the better of the modern crime writers but you have to expect that about half of the book is about the trials and tribulations of the lead characters. As out and out mysteries, they are generally a bit sparse. I’ve read most of them, but tuned out when a couple of books seemed to completely mislay any crime plot at all – Death’s Jest Book was one of them. I go back to them at times primarily for the characters rather than the plot – although the Dalziel-lite books can be a bit of a drag at times.

    Thanks for the prompt, as it’s about time I went back to the series.

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    • I get the impression from this one that Dalziel is used as a bit of a pep-up when things start to drag. Which can be fine if things don’t drag too much, but I suppose that there’s typically more dragging as series and their books increase in length. So I’ll return to Hill, but with a few. Ore expectations in place.

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      • While agreeing that this is one of the weakest ones in the series, for me Hill is the 1970/1980 crime novelist who has dated best and whom I can reread periodically with enjoyment. It also works for me as a reminder of times past and the attitudes of the time. The Joe Sixsmith series is also worth a read as well. I think there was a general move then towards using crime fiction to comment on society as opposed to primarily setting the reader an enjoyable puzzle and in many ways that went too far (which in part explains why the British Library crime series has done so well). However, he was more fun than PD James or Ruth Rendell (although her Barbara Vine books for me date better) and as the Puzzle Doctor says a lot of the enjoyment was in seeing both the main and supporting characters develop over the series. I believe Mick Herron has acknowledged that Jackson Lamb is in part inspired by Dalziel. Perhaps there is a sub category of British popular fiction which appeals to me which deals with cynical but fundamentally decent human beings doing their best in difficult circumstances – Eric Ambler, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Price (the Audley books) and Lindsey Davis (Falco – which started as a Ancient Roman Raymond Chandler detective with an extended Italian family),

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        • Mick Herron is a name that keeps cropping up in my vague, hugely filtered awareness of modern writers. His basing anyone on Dalziel doesn’t, on this showing, really interest or excite me, but I do appreciate the reminder that I was going to check out one of his books. Ah, man, add it to the TBR…

          I completely agree about the move represented by crime fiction and its apparent need to reflect modern society, and the dated aspects of that bother me no more than do party lines and cars with a top speed of 30 mph in books from the 1920s. My chief objection to this tranche of fiction is that it’s just not that interesting to me to read about the surrounding lives of a bunch of dull people. I’m mostly in this genre for the plot — mostly, mind — and the move you talk about was achieved at the dilution and rigour of the plot density and ingenuity I typically enjoy.

          Ballsy though what Hill does here is, it’s not enough on its own for my tastes.

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  4. I thought I’d commented on this, but who knows where it got lost – in my brain, on the internet, in a lost world or a parallel universe.
    I once went to a talk by the crime writer Laurie King, and someone asked her what her favourite crime book was, and she said it was a book by Reginald Hill, Pictures of Perfection. And she said that Hill’s books had a trajectory unlike any other, in that he wrote one set of books, then with the same characters and the same series he changed completely, and wrote books that seemed to come from nowhere, and had little to do with the beginning of the series. Now, that isn’t completely true – but it’s a fair description. I had read the early ones and been quite meh about them, then stopped. But I did what King said and jumped in again at Pof Perfection, and indeed it is quite different from his earlier books, and I really liked it. And I loved some (not all) of his subsequent books, and even ventured back into the books-in-between.
    So if you are inclined sometime, you could go ahead in the series. It’s an impossible ask, but if you read P of P without knowing it was the same characters as Killing Kindness, I think you would be hard put to guess it was the same author…

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    • It’s unlikely I’ll be rushing back to Hill soon, but Dialogues of the Dead and PoP will go on my mental TBB so that when I stumble across either secondhand in a year or two I’ll remember to pick them up and give him another go. Before then, however, there is a lot of other stuff to read… 🙂

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