Wednesday, 26 September 2007

On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill

This is an older book by Reginald Hill, but you will appreciate, after reading what follows, why I won't be scurrying out to by the new one, especially since it doesn't follow through on its promise to kill Dalzeil. Beulah? Bah!

I'd previously read Singing The Sadness by Reginald Hill and though I wasn't uncritical, I generally quite liked it. Knowing that Hill came in for heavy admiration, I figured that the intrusive jokiness I detected was a purposeful affectation, perhaps even a character trait - maybe Joey Sixsmith really does think everyone he meets looks like a star from the golden age of Hollywood. On further investigation, I am sad to report this is not the case. It is no stylistic affectation. 'Tis ingrained, as Shakespeare had it.

On Beulah Height is a book about child murder, which is a very serious thing to write about. Hill uses the killing of children to make crap jokes. Its not that he is an atrocious writer - when he writesstraight exposition he is streets ahead of Ian Rankin, for example. But he butts (sorry) into his narrative with supposedly clever asides with irritating regularity. It is intrusive as it disrupts the flow, and offensive, because this is a book about dreadful things.

For Agatha Christie, a bodywas simply a pretext for a smug bourgeoise 'tec to demonstrate how clever he or she was in solving the mystery (and hence how clever Christie was for pulling the wool over everyone's eyes). She did it very well, and her murders had a innocence about them - murder was an after dinner game for adults, it was never sexual and never involved children. Christie's books were so removed from the real world that it is churlish to criticise them as exploitative and cruel. At the other end, writers like Hammett and Chandler also made murder into entertainment - but it was always something grim and nasty, carried out by depressingly real people for horribly mundane purposes.

Hill writes about the nastiness, but in a supercilious and annoying way that makes me angry. As stated, he can write competently enough, though I note an irritating fondness of the exclamation mark and the elipsis, villans of punctuation best left behind with short trousers and acne. Dick Scott describes being warned off the exclamation mark by experienced journalists, who had dubbed them dog's pricks. Hill over-writes to an extent that would make Iain Banks blush. Sometimes it is almost impossible to work out what he is actiually trying to convey, he is so busy showing us how clever he thinks he is. Key scenes are ruined by throw-away jokes and snide comments.

Hill's characters seem thin and uninteresting. Characterisation is done with a sledgehammer - a character from Newcastle is not only called Geordie (fair enough, people might call him that), but his speech is littered with clunky 'Geordie-isms.' Hill also seems peturbingly concerned with his female character's sex lives - we are told a great deal about Mrs Pascoe's stupendous breasts and we meet Shirley Novello in the confessional, owning up to having shagged some bloke five times. Pascoe himself is a dull prig. Even the bloated and buccolic Dalziell is only intermittently interesting or convincing, but even his would-be gargantuan presence he is obscured by what seems to be a cast of thousands. The plot is spread thinly between a half dozen protagonists, and that is only the 'goodies.' Gone are the days of the mercurial loner stalking the mean streets in endless rain. I know that modern police work is not about one brilliant individual engaged in a philisophical quest disguised as a murder story - but if we have to spend so much time with all these folk, at least make them better company.

The books flaws don't end there, however. There is a structural weakness. The problem is that the central event of the book - the murder of a little girl - is witnessed, no by one person, but by two. One of these people immediately and conveniently lapses into a coma before they can give the game away, and the other simply bites their tongue, for no convincing reason. Hill then brings the first witness out the coma, just in time to resolve everything and paper over the holes in the plot. Worse, he used exactly the same device in Singing The Sadness - putting a crucial witness incommunicado until it becomes absolutely necessary for them to speak - because Hill can't think of any other way to sort out his stew of red herrings.

But wait - there's more. Thinking about the second plot strand of On Beulah Height, I realised that for the 15 year old mystery to remain unsolved required YET ANOTHER character to have remained unconvincingly silent all these years. Sorry, but no, this just doesn't wash. This isn't a mystery, it is a mess. Yet it is acclaimed as a fine novel, an exemplar of the modern mystery genre. It is not. It is mince.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading 'On Beulah Height' last night, and wondered why the hell I bothered! I put this book down three times thinking, I can't read this, I can't keep track of it. Eventually, because I didn't have another book, I persevered and got into it. I was waiting for the big finish, not being able to put it down when they were going through the discussion on the stage. You know, I have no bloody idea what the hell it was all about. I think I'll have to either read it again, or let someone else explain to me. Did Betsy's father do it. What crap not to understand the ending. I won't read another Reginald Hill.

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