I’ve just finished reading A CLUBBABLE WOMAN by Reginald Hill. It’s his first novel about that “odd couple”, Dalziel and Pascoe, published originally in 1970. And it’s fascinating to see the beginning of what became one of the most popular of British mystery series.
The setting is Yorkshire, though the background isn’t as strongly Yorkshire as in later books. But the characters are strong all right. Superintendent Andy Dalziel is outspoken, coarse, ruthless, but sensitive on occasion and above all a brilliant detective. Peter Pascoe is a graduate, idealistic, liberal and very bright, but still quite naïve at this stage. They’re a fascinating combination, and – as in all the later books – the interaction between them gives depth and strength to the mysteries. In this first book, we watch Pascoe gradually moving from being appalled by his boss to feeling grudging respect for him, and even a hint of affection by the end.
The setting is a rugby club, where Dalziel feels at home; a former player, he knows everyone, and is aware of undercurrents among players past and present and their wives and girlfriends. When one of the wives is found beaten to death, he approaches the case from a position of knowledge, whereas Pascoe, who is still a sergeant, is the new boy, learning as he goes…about detection, and about his Superintendent.
I love this series and had read maybe ten of them before I found my way to Number One. That made me realise how skilfully Hill has tackled the main problem of writing a series. How can you make each book stand alone and be enjoyable for itself without necessary reference to the others? After all you can’t expect readers to progress tidily through a sequence of novels, but you want them to read the lot eventually, no matter where they begin. This needs careful handling…I know because I face the same challenge.
The very fact that I happily read Hill’s books in no particular order shows how well he succeeds in this. And that’s in spite of the fact that he allows his characters to move on through their lives, book by book; they don’t remain stuck in a time-warp. I’ve met Dalziel and Pascoe at different stages: Pascoe with a wife and then a child, Dalziel divorced, then with a lady friend…and so on.
In each story I had just enough information about their situations to make things clear without becoming tedious. Back-stories are important, but they must be filtered in as sparingly as possible. I’ve discarded more than one mystery – no names, no pack-drill – on discovering I was expected to absorb large indigestible lumps of “the story so far” in order to understand the current tale. That’s not a fault I’ve ever found in the Dalziel and Pascoe series.
I’ve read that Hill intended A CLUBBABLE WOMAN to be a standalone novel at first, but that would have been a sad waste of two terrific characters. Even in this first book, he seems to know them so well and understand what makes them tick. Perhaps that’s why he decided to feature them again. I don’t know. But I’m extremely glad that he did.