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Interview: Reginald Hill, creator of Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe

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It's hard to believe that their first appearance was back in 1970, but that's indeed the year that A Clubbable Woman introduced the world to Reginald Hill's fictional Mid-Yorkshire's odd couple, police officers Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. Numerous awards for crime fiction, and a television adaptation later, Reginald Hill and his creations are still going strong, much to the delight of anybody who enjoys intelligent, humorous, and challenging writing.

I've been an unabashed fan of their misadventures since reading a copy of that first book (sometime after its initial release date) and have happily devoured each new title. What has kept me, and I assume the millions of others who keep reading Mr. Hill's books, coming back is that you never know what you're going to find between the covers of a Dalziel and Pascoe investigation.

Not only have the plots for each book always been a notch above the usual police procedural, but Mr. Hill has never allowed his characters to descend to the level of predictability. Where other authors have been content to keep presenting the same collection of mannerisms and passing it off as a recurring character, Pascoe, Dalziel, and their colleagues, have continued to fascinate by their refusal to be predictable. Although you can be pretty sure that you'll end up buying if you head off to the pub with "Fat Andy", don't count on being able to anticipate anything else about him.
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So when the opportunity arose to pose some questions to Reginald Hill about his work and his two most famous constables, I leapt at it. As Mr. Hill and I are divided by an ocean of water and a few time zones, it was easiest to e-mail him my questions about his creations and have him e-mail back his answers.  I hope that this interview provides you with answers to some of your own puzzles about the history behind of the characters and the books they feature in. If you have never read anything by Mr. Hill, let alone one of Pascoe and Dalziel's investigations, maybe this will pique your interest sufficiently to give them a go. You really don't know what you've been missing.

With the publication of A Cure For All Diseases (Price Of Butcher's Meat in America) how many Dalziel and Pascoe novels does that make? Obviously when you wrote A Clubbable Woman back in 1970, their first appearance, you could have no idea that they would become as popular as they have, but when did you first have an inkling that you might be spending a good portion of your life writing about them?

There are 21 full-length novels, plus a couple of novellas and some short stories. After the first (A Clubbable Woman), I had neither inkling nor intention that there would be any more. The second (An Advancement of Learning) was a campus mystery that needed a couple of cops to investigate the crime and it occurred to me that like the TV chefs I had one that I’d prepared earlier, so out they came again. But when I found myself wondering what was going to happen to the Peter Pascoe/Ellie relationship, which I’d left dangling at the end of that story, I did begin to get that inkling – a most appropriate word as I was writing everything longhand back in those days.

Where did the idea for Andrew Dalziel come from – and does anybody not from Great Britain ever believe you when you tell them it's pronounced Dee-ell?

In the first book, Andy D was intended as a foil for Peter P – the antediluvian, steam-age, seat-of-the-well-scratched-pants cop against whom the new age, university educated whiz-kid would shine. It didn’t quite work out like that! As for the name’s pronunciation, it has I think become the shibboleth by which the series’ hard-core fans identify each other!

You've written novels not featuring Dalziel and Pascoe, but you've never strayed too far from what people would call mystery stories or thrillers. What is it about the genre that first appealed to you and that still inspires you?

I should have thought my two historical novels, two war novels and two sf novels were quite a long divagation from the mystery genre, but yes, my main track has been along the crime route. I have always been a great fan of the genre, but I think that creatively the its initial attraction was that 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 its 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!

One of the reasons I’ve been able to keep going with D&P for so long is that knowing them so well means I can hit the ground running, and don’t have to spend too much time rebooting them every time I start a new book. This gives me space to stretch out in any direction I fancy. Of course I have to be sure to provide enough basic information to involve new readers, but I know from my mail as well as from personal encounters that my old readers are a lively adventurous bunch, ready to go anywhere I may take them so long as the company remains good!

Which comes first the crime, the criminal, or how to go about solving it? You write stories where you already know the answers to the questions that most of your characters are trying to figure out – so I was curious as to how you go about putting all those pieces together

It’s not quite true to say that I know all the answers when I’m writing the stories. Like most novelists, I often find the process is a voyage of discovery rather than the simple tracing of a path to a known destination. Often I have set out for the land of spices and found myself making landfall in America instead! Anything can be a starting point, a newspaper paragraph, a conversation overheard in a pub, a dream, a good idea for a title, an urge to write about a certain topic – sometimes the crime is there from the beginning, sometimes I stumble across it during the journey – and frequently the point I start from becomes irrelevant during the writing and the last thing that I write in the book is the first chapter. It’s an organic not an architectural process. No blueprints, and sometimes the looked-for rose turns out to be a cauliflower after all.
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Andy Dalziel came pretty close to snuffing it in Death Comes For The Fat Man (did you ever seriously consider letting him die?), and, even if he's reluctant to admit it, it's fairly obvious that his near-death experience has changed him in A Cure For All Diseases. He's always hidden surprises under his gruff exterior – even though sometimes it's been an even gruffer interior – but to see him have moments of introspection was a bit of a shock, and I wondered what inspired you to push him down this road?

Certainly not. It would have been like killing an old friend! Obviously the experience has left its mark on him, and, being a bright guy, he wants to understand why he feels as he does, what he can learn from it, and where it is going to leave him. Throughout the books I’ve been at pains to portray Fat Andy as a man with much more going on inside than he ever cares to show. All that happens in A Cure For All Diseases is that for the first time his situation permits him to speak directly to the reader. In the next book (Midnight Fugue, out later this year) Dalziel is back at work and discovering what most people discover if absent from their job for a while, or when they retire, that no one is indispensable.

Why did I push him down this road, you ask. Because, like all my character, I hope, he’s not a fixed point. He has to develop, change, and, yes, get older. Bit like me, I suppose. With the first third of my life behind me, I suppose I may be getting a tad more reflective….

A Cure For All Diseases, is much lighter in tone than the two or three that proceeded it, was this a deliberate decision on your part, or was it just the way the story worked out?

Is it? I suppose so, though I always like to have a bit of a giggle as I go along. In the case of "A Cure"…I’d like to think its tone might owe something to its origins in Jane Austen who mingled mirth and high seriousness more deliciously than almost any other writer.

As the series has advanced you've gradually been introducing two new members of the Mid-Yorks; Hat Bowler and Shirley Novello, giving each of them gradually larger roles. When you first introduced them did you have long term plans in mind, or has having them available as cast members, so to speak, suggested ideas for putting them to use – as each of them have now had a "starring" role and are now given more to do in each subsequent book

I hate creating characters simply in terms of their function. No matter how brief their appearance, I like to know them as people. Even dear old PC Hector had to be more than just a clown. While I don’t have usually long terms plans for anyone when they first appear, if they “live”, then obviously they aren’t going to simply vanish after a single appearance.

The character of Fanny Root has been popping up to plague Peter Pascoe for a number of years now, and although the dynamic of their relationship has changed radically since he saved Peter's daughter, there's still the feeling that Fanny is Peter's personal Albatross to bear and perennial blind spot. Where did you get the idea of coming up with a character who plays this type of role in Peter's life, and what did you hope to accomplish with him?

Franny Roote was a very early creation, appearing in the second D&P novel over thirty years ago, God help us! I was fascinated by him and though he was obviously out of commission in jail for several years, I often found myself wondering what he would do when he came out. So I decided to take a look – that’s the great thing about being a writer – we have free access to everyone’s private life! He’s a very laid-back, cool kind of chap, and thinks it would be rather amusing to gently haunt Peter Pascoe, but he is in the end hoist on his own petard and finds that Pascoe has come to mean great deal to him also. He is a spirit of mischief, and in some ways he’s even a match for Dalziel, who like to think he sees through him, yet finds it very hard to lay a finger on him.

I'm curious as to why the American edition of your latest book has such a radically different title from that released in Canada and Great Britain? Considering the story line I thought A Cure For All Diseases was a highly appropriate title

My American publisher assured me that for reasons I still fail to understand, A Cure For All Diseases would not signify anything to an American audience. Across the border in Canada they had no such problem. In fact given the choice of the two titles, they opted for A Cure… nem con! What the American choice does have going for it is that it’s a direct quote from Sanditon. I’d put it on my list of possibles when I was still looking for a title as I wrote the book, but nobody over here liked it and as the book developed, I could see it wasn’t really suitable myself. But in New York they seized upon it with glee, and I hope that sales figures will prove they know their market!

The idea of Andy Dalziel attending a "health spa" was funny enough on it's own, but to find him plunked down in the midst of a town filled that's billing itself as a centre for "New Age" health treatments brings the words Bull and China shop to mind. What inspired that particular combination?

This really all came out of JA’s (Jane Austen) Sanditon, the theme of which was clearly going to be absurdities which always dance attendance on the new, whether it’s in art or fashion or healing or anything. It’s time alone that tells us what works and what is merely daft. There is real healing going on in my Sandytown, and that’s why Dalziel is there. But all the alternative stuff’s there too, a lot of treatments that mainstream medicine would like to dismiss out of hand, but which are proving remarkably resilient. With Dalziel in need of somewhere to convalesce after his explosive experience, this updating of 19th century Sanditon to 21st-century Sandytown seemed the perfect place for him. He too, remember, is in a somewhat ambiguous state!

At some point even Andy Dalziel will have to consider retirement, have you given any thought to what the future might hold if that ever came to pass?

As those who have read my novella "One Small Step" will know, next year, if I am spared, I will have reached a time that seemed so far ahead back in 1990 that I was able to imagine Andy Dalziel coming out of gouty retirement to investigate the first murder on the moon. How I will reconcile this with his continued presence in Mid Yorkshire as a very active head of CID I have not yet worked out. One thing I am certain of – my lively, imaginative and hugely intelligent readership, having come thus far along this always winding and often perilous path with me, will not be daunted by whatever outrageous explanation presents itself.

Perhaps it has all been a dream….

I don't think we have to worry too much whether Reginald Hill will be able to figure out some innovative means of reconciling his truth and fiction. As he's proven so many times in the past he never seems at a loss for an inventive plot. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for answering the questions I posed with the same intelligence and humour that he brings to all his writing.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Ira Weinberg

    I too like Daziel and Pascoe. Some time ago I found out that the characters have been part of a television series in the UK produced by the BBC Television unit. I would love to see these programs, however I live in “region 1″ and it appears that they are not licensed for viewing/purchase in the USA. What a shame. How can I get them? Or more important why are they restricted from the USA? The fat man would make a joke but I don’t think this situation is funny. Help me Pascoe

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Ira

    Check out Acorn Online Media under the USA section. I believe they sell Box sets of the BBC show that you are talking about that you can watch in our region. Or you can try the BBC America web site and A&E’s web site as they both also make Box sets of British televisions shows available for sale that are suitable for our televisions.

    cheers

    Richard

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Right. Dalziel and Pascoe has been shown on PBS in the US, so it’s probably available in Region 1 format somewhere – most likely the places Richard suggests.