(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Though Reginald Hill is the author of more than forty books in many genres, he is known first and foremost as the creator of Yorkshire detective superintendent Andrew Dalziel and Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe, who together have been solving crimes since A Clubbable Woman was published in 1970. That novel introduced readers to Dalziel (pronounced “Dee-ell”), sometimes referred to behind his back as Fat Andy and by other even less flattering nicknames by friend and foe alike. Coarse, corpulent, given to glaringly impolite remarks about race, class, and gender, Dalziel nonetheless confounds both criminal and law enforcement minds with his almost clairvoyant perception of human motivation. He also possesses a physical prowess that belies his considerable girth. More than one reviewer has applied the term “Falstaffian” to the superintendent: He can outdrink his staff even as he outthinks them, out-joking and outfoxing his adversaries as well as his allies.

This is not to say Dalziel requires no help. Peter Pascoe begins the series as a fresh recruit, a university-educated representative of a kinder, gentler police mind-set that the old-fashioned Dalziel openly scorns. Much of the humor and human interest in Hill’s writing develops from this tension between personalities and philosophies. With each successive case, it becomes increasingly clear that Dalziel’s blunt force needs Pascoe’s nuances to solve modern-day crimes. Their partnership thus grows from an initial wariness (even distaste) through a mutual grudging respect to a shared affection and reliance on each other’s strengths.

Ellie Pascoe, Peter’s wife, begins the series as a foil to both men. An academic who disapproves of Dalziel’s excesses, she also proves to Peter that he is often less enlightened—and more Dalziel-like—than he would care to admit. In later books, Ellie takes on more and more importance as a character: In Arms and the Women (1999), for example, it is Ellie’s situation that provides the main plot and her voice that controls much of the narrative. Peter and Ellie’s courtship (college sweethearts years before, they are reacquainted in An Advancement of Learning) and the progress of their married relationship into parenthood over the course of many novels is just one of several story lines Hill maintains from book to book.

Hill allows other recurring characters to develop as well, personalities who collectively become a rich and varied supporting cast rather than merely a set of stereotypes. These finely drawn roles include Sergeant Edgar “Wieldy” Wield, whose chiseled features are repeatedly mocked by Dalziel even as the superintendent counts on Wield’s nearly photographic memory. Through the early novels Wield keeps his homosexuality closely closeted to preserve his police career ambitions, but as he comes out, he gives the stories added depth and human interest. Another character, Detective Shirley Novello, similarly has to navigate a career environment traditionally hostile to her presence. One of Hill’s many accomplishments is that such roles never seem gratuitous; each character is given a fair share of the plot—investigative and personal—without the author’s using them as spokespersons for a cause or social issue.

Indeed, the intricate weave of private life with professional life is one of the most pronounced features of the Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries. In The Wood Beyond (1996), the crime plot is paralleled by and then intersects with Pascoe’s family history; in Good Morning, Midnight, Dalziel’s past implicates him in a questionable suicide case that Pascoe must investigate. Often cited as Hill’s main accomplishment is the sheer vitality of his writing, credited with “raising the British mystery to new heights,” as The New York Times has said. In...

(The entire section is 1581 words.)