Thursday, January 05, 2006

Reginald Hill: The Stranger House

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.

49 comments:

Adrian Weston said...

I shall read it post haste - sounds like a good recommendation. on which subject, have you yet read Silence of the Grave by
Arnaldur Indridason out now from Harvill and 2005 CWA gold dagger winner. Superb. And the book that can be credited with causing the CWA to exclude non-English writers from the award in future (a subject on which I feel outraged)

Anonymous said...

Even though I'm up here in Ontario, Canada, I have Reginald Hill on the brain and I'm wondering why. Of course! It's that by now- almost- annoying set of reruns of Dalziel and Pascoe that serves as our nightly tv fare on TVO here. Is there no Canadian talent when it comes to detective yarns? Probably CBC policy--when something is truly enjoyed by the audience, like the old Streetlegal, you kill it an replace it with something dull,which you will enjoy as good because we say it's good and we are informed by a higher power.
This whacknut policy results in our bringing in a lot of Brit content and airing it on Ontaro tv, or TVO, and not on the national CBC, which now brings us hockey and old chesnut American movies. Canadian content? Go figure.
Anyway, there's nothing wrong with Dalziel and Pascoe, or, for that matter, Rosemary and Thyme.
But pretty soon you start talking like a Yorkshireman.
Hix Nix Stix Pix?

Anonymous said...

Small problem-When Sam is telling her story to Mig, she says her grandmother came to Australia in 1960. They remember 1960 because that was the year JFK became president and the nuns in the orphanage forced everyone to watch.

The problem is that JFK became president in 1961. The public election was 1960,but the Electoral College vote and the inauguration were in 1961.

Anonymous said...

Read on, Jim: as always Reg Hill knows exactly what he's doing. And how he does it!

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain the ending to me? I do understand that Michael Galley must be Mig's distant relative. But why would Jenny refer to him as Michael Galley, instead of as Miguel Madero? (Or is the slight man who enters the hut as Andrew is examining the baby Michael Galley?) & the baby is also related to Sam, whose grandmother was Pam Galley. I guess Jenny turns out to be related to Sam - red hair, and all.....but somehow, I just can't put it all together. Did I miss something? "Puzzled in Peoria"

Anonymous said...

As a devoted Reginald Hill fan, (hence getting this book out of the library, thank heaven I didn't waste my money on it,) I persevered to chapter 7 before I returned it in total disgust.
As an Australian woman, married to and Englishman who many relatives
living in Kendal, Ambleside and Windemere I have spent many wonderful times in Cumbria and have visited it extensively.
When I saw this book I thought it would be wonderful as it had an Australian connection and the familiar memories of life in Cumbria. The topic also grabbed me as we have done extensive family tracing in those parts.
Apparently your your amazing research skills have let you down. Have you ever been to Australia, or have you ever met a real Australian? If you had you would know that NO self respecting Australian would EVER speak in the gross jargon you have Sam speaking in,only Paul Hogan and the late Steve Irwin speak like that and
then only for self promotion. AAARRRGGGHHH. At least I know that noone else I ever met in Cumbria sent us up like that but it beggars belief what people who rely on your TRUE and REALISTIC research will think of our truly wonderful country where the the sun REALLY shines MOST of the time. I really wish this whole farce could be edited out as it is truly defamatory.
What a terrible shame!!!!!!!!!

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