Reginald Hill is one of the UK's most distinguished writers -- and I'm not just limiting that statement to crime fiction, which is his primary field.
Hill is chiefly famous for his series of 23 novels featuring the two police detectives Dalziel and Pascoe. These novels constitute the main grounds for the UK Crime Writers Association awarding him their prestigious Cartier Diamond Dagger for his lifetime contribution to crime writing. The novels have also been successfully filmed for television.
Under other names Hill has written in other genres, such as historical and science fiction. Indeed his latest book, The Stranger House, is quite hard to pigeonhole; it is perhaps best described as a mainstream novel.
As you would expect from a man who has written several million words of fiction, and is now nearly seventy, The Stranger House is absolutely professional and polished in every way. It's a pleasure to read. Carefully researched, thought about in great detail before pen ever touched paper, this book provides a great deal for the beginning writer to learn from and for the experienced reader to enjoy.
An author's note at the beginning goes to considerable pains to warn off the libel lawyers (I find garlic works best, and, if all else fails, hold up a silver cross), but then the author adds: Just because I've made it all up doesn't mean it's not true.
As is frequently the case with Hill's books, his chapter headings and part divisions feature quotations from literature: in this case the source is mainly the Poetic Edda, or the oral literature of Iceland, which was finally written down nearly a thousand years ago.
The plot of The Stranger House is fairly simple in essence, though it turns out to be complex in practice. Not difficult to follow, but complex in its ramifications. Two young people in their twenties come together in a small village in Cumbria, in the north of England. Sam Flood is a brilliant (female) mathematician from Australia, and Miguel Madero is a Spaniard who nearly became a priest. Both these young people are searching for information about the origins of their family.
The basic material of this novel could easily have served -- with a tweak here and a tweak there -- as the basis for yet another Dalziel and Pascoe novel. It involves crimes of various sorts, and investigation. I am very glad, however, that Hill chose to write this book the way he has. I have not enjoyed the last two or three Dalziel and Pascoe books, though no one else (to my knowledge) has complained. It seemed to me that Hill had grown weary of his two characters, and of the genre, and was writing what seemed all too likely to be a postmodern pastiche of his earlier triumphs. But here there is no mucking about. Just a very interesting story, well told.
If you want to pick holes, you could say that on page 206 the hero and heroine get themselves into a mess which no one with any sense would have got into -- and that stretches the patience a bit. But since we know that there are still 250 pages to go, no reader is going to doubt for a minute that they will emerge unscathed.
Another problem is that the climax of the book, featuring a fire, stretches the old credulity just a trifle. But the description of the fire is as good as you could hope.
Some of the dialogue is also a little stagy -- but then the author does have to get his characters talking and exchanging information, so we shouldn't complain.
All in all these are trivial criticisms compared with the overall achievement, which is substantial. Highly recommended. As usual, the work of an old pro from one of the commercial genres makes the average literary novel look like a very sick puppy indeed.