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:
“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.
On 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.
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.