Reginald Hill: Overview

Reginald Hill is unquestionably the most satisfying of the post-WWII writers, because of his ability to effortlessly combine plot, storytelling, characterisation, and theme, combining the puzzle plot of John Dickson Carr, the literary wit of Michael Innes and Dorothy L. Sayers, the moral outrage of H.C. Bailey, and the naturalistic characterisation of the moderns.  His early books were championed by Edmund Crispin and H.R.F. Keating, who called Hill “the best hope for the crime novel”.

Hill’s novels are long and complex: plots often span decades and continents; the characters are at once naturalistic and mythic archetypes; humour and tragedy are provided in equal measure; and the solutions are, at their best, genuinely surprising and brilliantly clued.  His work is also marked by a rich, often bawdy sense of humour and playfulness lacking in other writers of this period.  In some ways, his works have echoes of Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett, whom he admires[1], with their gusto and good humour, using a popular form to say something serious.

Hill, like Nicholas Blake and Gladys Mitchell, was drawn to the fact that the crime novel emphasised story, which provided a structure on which characterisation and theme could be built, and which was ‘infinitely expandable’[2] so as to address themes or concepts not directly related to the mystery.[3]  Crime fiction was ‘a kind of morality play’, with ‘the everyman’ Peter Pascoe, essentially a good man caught between the good and bad angels Dalziel and his wife Ellie. [4] 

The example Hill cites is The Wood Beyond (1996), a mystery novel set in the present day, which concerns WWI, animal rights, and multinational corporations, and draws on the poetry of Andrew Marvell.[5]  Other works that demonstrate this approach include the sparkling Jane Austen pastiches, Pictures of Perfection (1994) and A Cure for All Diseases (2008), the breathtaking On Beulah Height (1998), which weaves Marvell’s Kindertotenlieder into a work about a drowned village, the Yorkshire drought, and the effect of missing children and paedophilia on a community; Virgil and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in Arms and the Women (1999); and the English language itself in the linguistic tour de force Dialogues of the Dead (2001). 

Other books are about the effects of the past on the present, whether a crime committed many years before (Child’s Play, 1987), or a historical event, whether contemporary and topical (the mines and the Thatcher era in Under World, 1988; the Iraq War in Good Morning, Midnight, 2004) or one that happened a long time ago (the 1960s spy era in Recalled to Life, 1992).  He has built upon Innes’s technique of literary pastiche, using literature and myth to address historical and contemporary events and serious themes such as war, religion, love, and grief.

Hill is an extremely clever plotter, not as straightforward as P.D. James or Ruth Rendell, but a bolder and more audacious one, closer to the approach of Sayers and Mitchell than that of Carr or Christie.  His solutions are doubly satisfying because they are both highly ingenious, and because they are so closely involved with the characters and the themes.    Among the best are Pictures of Perfection, jubfr bcravat frrzf gb qrfpevor n znffnper; the hcfvqr-qbja znc / PQ pbire of On Beulah Height; and the nantenz fhogvgyr of Dialogues of the Dead, all absolutely brilliant examples of hiding clues in plain sight. 

He uses four main types of plots: straightforward closed circle murders (e.g., A Clubbable Woman, 1970; An Advancement of Learning, 1971; An April Shroud, 1975); connections between separate cases, so that apparently disparate murders tie up together, or what appears to belong to one case, really belongs to another (e.g., Ruling Passion, 1973; A Pinch of Snuff, 1978; Exit Lines, 1984; Child’s Play); semi-inverted or Ilesian stories in which the murderer is known from the start (e.g., Deadheads, 1983; Bones and Silence, 1990); and serial killer stories (e.g., A Killing Kindness, 1980; Under World, On Beulah Height, Dialogues of the Dead).

Hill’s major books were written between Under World (1988) and Dialogues of the Dead (2001).  Under World introduces many of the approaches that will be used in later works.  It is long and dense, and uses the darkness down t’ pit to symbolise darkness in people.  Several aspects of the work are overtly Jungian, particularly the use of archetypes and the quest for individuation, as Pascoe goes into the dark and conquers his fears, emerging a complete man, symbolised by his promotion to Chief Inspector.  For the first time in the canon, Dalziel—the ‘Wise Old Man’—is compared to a benevolent God, an idea which Hill will build on in Bones and Silence, in which the policeman plays the part of the Almighty in a Mystery Play.

Unfortunately, Hill’s books since Death’s Jest-book (2002) have been less successful as detective stories or crime novels.  The problem is that Hill seems to have stopped writing crime novels, and to now be writing character novels with crime elements.  In the process, he has lost much of what made him great: the ingenious plotting, replaced with convoluted or anti-climactic plots; and the humour and stylistic and thematic richness of earlier works, replaced with dourness and violence.  In fact, like too many good writers, he has attempted to transform the detective story into the crime novel, which, as Barzun (“Detection and the Literary Art”, 1970) argues, is a bastardisation of the genre, resulting in a book that is neither detective story nor straight novel, but an inferior hybrid. 

The Death of Dalziel (2007) is a case in point.  It works on the level of theme (what the book is about), but it doesn’t live as a story.  Although the title suggests that this will be a tragedy in the line of Agatha Christie’s Curtain (1975) and Colin Dexter’s Remorseful Day (1999), in which Poirot and Inspector Morse died, this is really a character study of Pascoe after Dalziel has been  blown up by a terrorist organisation called the Knight Templars, a far right anti-Islamist organisation.  The main theme is Pascoe’s struggle to take Dalziel’s place.  Dalziel doesn’t loom large, so it is more about absence than loss.  As a novel, however, it is flawed.  Since Dalziel is in a coma, the book lacks both humour and mystery, and most of the characters are ‘spooks’, the tone of the story is very cold. 

Even worse is Midnight Fugue (2009), the most recent Dalziel and Pascoe novel.  The two protagonists no longer like or trust each other, and there is a lot of vulgarity: a gangster masturbates over hardcore porn on the internet (we had enough of this with Good Morning, Midnight, in which an adolescent ejaculates all over his hated / lusted after stepmother), and a woman drops her knickers to distract the same henchman.  The ending is very violent: gur tnatfgre’f fvfgre fubbgf uvz, gur cbyvpr fubbg ure, naq gur pebbxrq svanapvre / tnatfgre obff’f fba’f CN zheqref uvz (bhg bs yrsg svryq).

[1] ‘Book Brahmin: Reginald Hill.’  <>

[2] ‘Author Interview with Reginald Hill from HarperCollins Publishers Australia.’  <>

[3]‘It provided something interesting to be happening while I explored my characters and said what I wanted to say!  In other words it provided (sometimes literally) a skeleton to support what might otherwise have been a somewhat flaccid narrative.

‘Soon I began to feel, and still do feel, that it is such a varied and variable format that it can contain almost anything.  To the essential narrative dynamic of nearly all good novels—what happens next?—it adds the intellectually intriguing question—what really happened in the first place?  And because it’s so elastic a form, it readily expands when I want to focus on matters perhaps peripheral to the main whodunit themes, such as animal rights protest, the First World War, or medieval mystery plays!’ (‘Interview: Reginald Hill, creator of Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe.’ <>)

[4] ‘Author Interview with Reginald Hill from HarperCollins Publishers Australia.’

[5] ‘Author Interview with Reginald Hill from HarperCollins Publishers Australia.’