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Monday, 23 August 2021

Gone Before Their Time: Reginald Hill (3 April 1936 – 12 January 2012)

 by Lynne Patrick

There are authors who keep writing long after they should have called it a day. There are others whose demise is not merely untimely; it happens when they are at the peak of their achievement, and robs readers of what might have been. Reginald Hill falls very firmly into the second category.

This master storyteller was just seventy-five when he died of a brain tumour in January 2012 – no age at all these days. He left a considerable legacy; many of his devotees, myself included, can spend years catching up on a backlist which ran to some four dozen novels, plus a number of others written under pseudonyms and several volumes of short stories. There’s little doubt that in his case practice was making, if not perfect, then more complex, intriguing and witty with each successive novel.

The Dalziel and Pascoe series for which he is arguably best known was an object lesson in how to take the police procedural format and turn it into something much richer, full of insights, witty and perceptive, peopled with regular characters the reader wanted to sit in the pub with. They were full of surprises; no two were alike despite the genre labelling.

The same applies to his standalones: each different from the next, exploring vividly imagined worlds. Espionage and the French Resistance came to life in as much colour and detail as a village in his beloved Cumbria; the characters had depth, breadth and a kind of emotional truth the most venerated of literary authors strive after with far less success.

His foray into the world of private eyes with the brief Joe Sixsmith series is typically quirky: a unique take on a well-worn sub-genre, full of warmth and humour.

I never met Reg Hill. By all accounts he was a modest man, and his work received the attention it deserved without benefit of the conventions and festivals where authors seek that attention by rubbing shoulders with readers. But he did me a great kindness, which, I was told by people who were privileged to have spent time in his company, was completely in character. Many people have their own Reg Hill story; this is mine.

A few years before he died, I was running a small independent publishing company specializing in crime fiction, and I decided to bring out a volume of short stories in support of a charity. I approached about thirty crime writers of varying degrees of fame and success, to ask them to donate short stories to be used just once for this purpose.

The project was still very much at the idea stage; at that point I hadn’t even decided which charity the book would support. A big mistake, as it turned out. Reg Hill was the first to reply to my scatter of e-mails. He would be glad to help, he said, but first he needed more information – such as, which charity, and how much would they get from the sale of each copy.

Basic stuff, and what he was really saying was that I should have thought it through before asking for help from the kind of keen minds which produce crime fiction – of which Reg Hill surely possessed one of the keenest.

He was very gentle with me, though I didn’t deserve it, and by the time he’d finished with me I had a far clearer
picture of where the project was headed. And as soon as the essential details were in place, his was the first story to arrive.

The book eventually raised nearly £2500 for a breast cancer charity, which I am sure wouldn’t have happened without Reginald Hill’s name on the cover.

Seveal years have gone by since the news of his death gave many of his fans an unwelcome shock. His career lasted over forty years, and if we can believe his own account of it, he never aspired to ‘literary’ fiction. His Oxford education and great erudition are there in his work for anyone who chooses to look for them, but he wore them lightly and never lost sight of the fun side of his chosen profession.

His wit was gentle, his imagination extraordinary and his intelligence incisive. He was, irrespective of genre, quite simply, a great writer.

For a complete list of book by Reginald Hill visit

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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