Friday, October 18, 2013

Exit Lines

Reginald Hill was a prolific writer (he died last year) who not only produced some 24 very popular titles featuring the policemen, Dalziel (pronounced, roughly, De-el) and Pascoe, but more than 30 other books, some of them under the pseudonyms Patrick Ruel and Charles Underhill.  He wrote mysteries and adventure stories and historical pieces and sci-fi.  He also used varying structural conceits - one of the later Dalziel and Pascoe titles is written with a kind of Jane Austen language and thought - and the books are full of wit, literary references, words that no one in normal life uses, but seem apt for the occasion ('a reboant cantillation of obscene abuse', 'a usefully cunctatory bout of coughing'), crafty plotting, and superbly humorous insights into his characters. These are all mixed with ordinary everyday language, and the books shouldn't be thought of as inaccessible to the average reader.  It doesn't matter if you don't know what a reboant cantillation is - you'll get the idea from the context.  Hill once said: "When I get up in the morning, I ask my wife whether I should write a Booker prize-winning novel, or another bestselling crime book. We always come down on the side of the crime book."

I hadn't read anything of his until this year - there are always more authors around than you can manage to keep up with, even in a dozen lifetimes - and I started off with his book of short stories,  There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union, which we'd picked up secondhand somewhereThe long title story is superbly written - a ghost story that works down to the last detail.  Some of the other stories are odd - one of them takes a Dalziel and Pascoe novel (one that's been filmed as part of the television series), takes us behind the scenes of the fictional television filming of the book, and makes the actor playing Pascoe a pompous self-centred ass, who, with some hasty rewriting of the script, gradually pushes Dalziel into a very minor role. Hill turns up as a character as well, the increasingly angry author who sees his popular story being turned into nonsense.

The only other Hill novel I'd had any contact with was Exit Lines, which I'd twice heard on CD while travelling to and from Christchurch.  When I say 'twice heard' I mean that the first time I heard about the first 60 pages, and then didn't hear any more, and then on a second trip, heard about 90 pages, and still didn't hear any more. So rather than trying to listen to the rest - I'm not good at just sitting listening to CDs unless I'm lying in bed sick - I bought a copy of the book, started it yesterday and finished it today. It's immensely readable, often very funny, and has a complex plot that Ian Rankin could easily have put together. The big difference is that Rankin's pervading gloom doesn't colour everything, and even though Dalziel may be on a par with Rebus when it comes to drinking too much for his own good, and may have a temper and sharp tongue to match his Scottish counterpart, there's such wit and humour from both the characters and the author, that you know you're in a different kind of world.

There's a strong theme of the difficulties of old age - people with Alzheimer's or trying to live on their own without family - and also the horror that many young people have for the idea of growing old. The story begins with the deaths of three old men, in fact; two of them may be accidents, the third appears to be the result of an attack. Nothing is quite like it seems, and the further the story goes, the more our original views about the deaths and their aftermaths are altered.  There are some wonderfully innocent people, and some surprisingly devious ones.  There are some that appear suspicious and aren't, and some that appear to be all above board - and aren't. Hill holds out attention right to the end, even though we think we've got to grips with what's going on at an earlier point. 

There are an endless number of lines that could be quoted (one character, Mrs Spillings, is almost Dickensian in her speeches), but Hill reserves some of his best lines for the taciturn, and ugly, policemen, Wield (a regular in the series of books). 

'Back door,' said Wield. 'Glass panel broken. Key in lock. Hand through. Open. Easy.'
Sergeant Wield was in fine telegraphic style.  He also seemed to have been practising not moving his lips, so that the words came out of his slant and ugly face like a ritual chant through a primitive devil-mask.
Wield looked at the new acquisition and raised his eyebrows, producing an effect not unlike the vernal shifting of some Arctic landscape as the sun sets an ice-bound river flowing once more through a waste of snows.

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