Exit Lines (Reginald Hill)

  • By Reginald Hill
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1984; US: Macmillan, 1985

Exit Lines (Reginald Hill, 1984) is a particularly good book, even by Reginald Hill’s standards. It tackles the themes of death and ageing in both a humorous and a tragic way, showing the keen intelligence and humanity of the author.

The book opens with the deaths of three old men on a November night: as Detective Inspector Pascoe remarks, decidedly “not a good night for the old”. One was murdered in his bathtub, his daughter arriving just in time to hear him gasp “Charley” and die; one died of exposure on playing fields, the discoverer of the body hearing him cry “Polly”; and the third murmured “Paradise! Driver… fat bastard…pissed!”—understandably so, for Superintendent Dalziel was in the car which hit him. The dying messages serve as clues as enigmatic as death itself, reinforced by the choice of dying words as chapter headings. Police work uncovers connections between the supposedly separate cases—and police corruption hovering in the air, with Dalziel going on a shooting spree (of pheasants, that is)—“grand”.

Reginald Hill shows himself as a keen observer of humanity, fascinated by the human race—but not becoming bogged down in Ruth Rendell’s social conscience or P.D. James’ bleak pessimism, but instead remembering that the writer’s first duty is to the reader, to entertain. Take, for example, Ellie Pascoe’s father’s senility as an example of how to handle family background problems without intrusion: it is secondary to the plot, but is there as a play on the book’s theme of ageing, but also serves to provide a clue. Characterisation is superlative, the reader really feeling sympathy for the characters, or despising those who view the old as a burden. Hill achieves this through a remarkable mixture of humour and genuine emotion, contrasting—but never clashing—humour with grief in succeeding paragraphs. Old age is really brought home to the reader by the senile dementia of Mrs. Escott, a genuinely pathetic and well-drawn character.

The whole—detective story, novel elements—culminates in a particularly neat and moving ending in which all the loose ends tied up, with both good clues and affecting murderers. This book shows Reginald Hill at the height of his powers—without any doubt the best of the modern writers of detective stories.


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

The Times (Marcel Berlins, 2nd August 1984): The last words of three old men, dying on the same night, raise police eyebrows.  The solution is crisp and satisfying but, as always, it is Mr. Hill’s unerring characterisation that provides the main pleasure.  Chief Superintendent Andy Dalziel, under suspicion for drunken driving or worse, is now so finely developed that even his briefer than usual appearances bristle with meaning and subtlety.  Mr. Hill does not neglect his minor characters and the gay Sergeant Wield in particular becomes more interesting by the book.