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Thursday, 23 November 2017

An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

I’ve not seen a single episode of the BBC’s long-running series Dalziel and Pascoe and, I must admit, I’ve never wanted to. There’s something about TV police procedurals that irritates me: I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get into them in the same way I can get into police procedural books. However, I’m glad to have finally read a Dalziel and Pascoe novel, although An April Shroud (1975) is more of a Dalziel-featuring-Pascoe novel.

Reginald Hill died in 2012, and, scanning his obituaries and tributes for a small academic project, I was struck by the fact that fellow crime writers talked about him in a specific and unusual way. They didn’t mention his prose – it’s almost as if they hadn’t read his books – but talked instead about him as a person: in an incredibly affectionate and very slightly condescending way. A similar thing happened when Colin Dexter died earlier this year.

All of this piqued my curiosity, and, when I saw An April Shroud in a charity shop, I bought it and read it. Before anything else, I was fascinated by the cover, because it includes three praiseful quotes. One from the Times describing Hill as ‘consistently excellent’ (the word ‘consistent’ always makes me want to read the whole review), one from the Observer calling him the best purveyor of ‘homebred crime fiction’, and one from Val McDermid which strikes me as praise so fully qualified that it’s rather faint: ‘The finest male English contemporary crime writer’ (McDermid being, of course, Scottish).

Inspector Pascoe is on his honeymoon, leaving Superintendent Andy Dalziel alone, on a lakeside holiday. Dalziel is large and gregarious, with a deliberately unrefined manner and an obsessively indulgent attitude to everything in life – including police work. He forces himself to enjoy his holiday in the first few pages of An April Shroud, while standing on a bridge and watching the river beneath:
No! Sod it! This wouldn’t do at all. The holiday was the thing. Fresh air, commune with nature, bathe in beauty, pay homage to history. An English holiday, tired policeman, for the revitalization of.
Any corpse comes floating this way, I’ll say Hello sailor, and goodbye, avowed Dalziel and as an act of both symbol and necessity he descended to the water-lapped limit of the bridge, unzipped his flies and began to pee in the flood.
He is, of course, interrupted by the arrival of a corpse in a boat (okay, it’s in a coffin in a boat; he witnesses a funeral procession). Before long, a combination of harsh weather and greedy curiosity means that Dalziel not only gets to know the entire funeral party, but also ends up staying under their roof.

The family is hardly in mourning, Dalziel notices – they are aloof and uncomplicated toffs. Moreover, the deceased’s widow, Bonnie, causes numerous stirrings in his trousers. When he finds out that that Bonnie is buried two husbands – and the circumstances under this one died – the Superintendent embarks on a busman’s holiday.

Although I’d hate to meet him in real life, I really enjoyed reading about Andy Dalziel. He’s a totally gross human being, but presented so skilfully that when we laugh at him it’s with an appreciation for what’s going through his mind: we appreciate how ridiculous the world around him is, and his refusal to go along with social niceties is almost laudible. I have previously read that Dalziel and his hard-working subordinate Pascoe are a kind of rip-off of Joyce Porter’s Inspector Dover and Sergeant Wilson – and, although I haven’t read any Porter, I’ve always enjoyed them on the radio. However, Dalziel is much more interesting than Dover – who is grotesque and lazy and pretty much hates the idea of work of any kind – because Dalziel has to do police work, even on holiday. Hill explains:
time had to be passed and the habit of professional curiosity was as hard to change as the habits of smoking or drinking or taking three helpings of potatoes and steamed pudding.
So, the character is more considered and therefore more interesting. I also enjoyed his/Hill’s pithy insights into character: one man is introduced as ‘unrepentantly Liverpudlian’, another man’s idea of tasteful décor is likened to ‘a bourgeois Taj Mahal’, and when some Americans roll up we are told that ‘they might have been gang leaders, astronauts, presidential aides or Mormon PR men, but they were unmistakably American.’

To my mind, the novel drags on a bit. It’s 326 pages long, which I think is 100 too many. The story itself isn’t substantial and, by around p. 150, the observational humour and Dalziel being Dalziel starts to get repetitive. That said, the ending is very nice, with everything tightly resolved but enough ambiguity and human emotion in dialogue with legal justice to be genuinely interesting.

I’m willing to accept that An April Shroud is not the best novel in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and I’m sure I’ll read another one, one day, but I shan’t be rushing out and stocking up any time soon. Perhaps if I’d already been invested in the two policemen – had actually cared about who Pascoe marries or how Dalziel spends his down-time – I’d have loved it. As it is, I found the book fun and forgettable.

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