When someone famous dies, lots of people have their own story about him or her.
Reginald Hill, one of the most brilliant crime writers that ever lived, died last week, far too soon, (seventy-five is absolutely no age at all these days), and this is my story about him.
About four years ago I decided to put together a collection of short stories with a crime theme, and publish it in support of two breast cancer charities, one in the UK, the other in the US. Publishing was always a steep learning curve for me, and I stumbled around this particular project without much idea of how to begin.
First off was to approach a whole lot of authors, to ask them to donate stories: some were hardly known at all, others known to crime fiction aficionados, a few very well-known indeed.
Reginald Hill came top of the third list – and he was the first to reply. By return e-mail. He liked the sound of the project, but he wanted more information.
And quite right too. I could have been anyone, asking him to give away his work for no fee. At that stage I hadn’t even finalized which charities the book was going to support. I told you I was stumbling around. Everything in the wrong order.
Reg Hill’s first contribution to the project was to force me to look at what I was doing and focus my thoughts in the right direction. The information he wanted was pretty basic stuff: which charities, how much would they get, that kind of thing. That tells you how woolly my thinking was.
The next part tells you that he wasn’t asking questions to be difficult, but because he was more clear-sighted that I shall ever be: as soon as I was able to give him the answers he wanted, he replied by return e-mail again – this time with a short story attached.
His was the first contribution I received. Like every wonderful book of his I’ve ever read, especially the incomparable Dalziel and Pascoe series, and the gentle but incisive humour of Joe Sixsmith, it bears re-reading; each time there’s something, some nuance, some detail, some clue, which I missed every previous time. And the quality of his writing is an object lesson; forget the great divide between literary and genre fiction, he should be required reading on every creative writing course.
I never met Reg Hill, though after making contact through the short story collection we did exchange e-mails from time to time, and he gave one of ‘my’ authors a great cover quote. He mostly stayed away from the conventions and festivals at which people like me get to rub shoulders with people like him, and if he engaged in any of the controversies the book trade throws up from time to time, I never heard about it. The closest was during one of his rare public appearances, when he said that given the choice between writing a Booker Prize winner and a new crime novel, he’d take the crime novel. I heard that secondhand and don’t know if he said why; I’d like to think it was because the crime novel would be more fun.
I knew him best through his books. There I perceived a man with a keen but kind eye, a positively scary intelligence and a refusal to compromise on things that mattered to him. Everyone I know who did meet him says the same: he was one of nature’s gentlemen, and a gentle man.