I’ve just read Marilyn’s post (welcome back, Marilyn; you’ve been missed) and now I’m feeling a little guilty. Appointing myself ‘designated reader’ was only a way of completing the Dead Guy chain, taking it from idea not just to bookshelf but to reader, which is, after all, the writer’s objective. I hope I haven’t left anyone else feeling the books they’re reading are out of bounds for their own posts. My intention was in any case completely self-indulgent; if there’s one thing I enjoy almost as much as reading, it’s talking about books, and blogging is just another way of talking. And in addition to that, I was hoping that when my own reading tastes become apparent, I might get some suggestions of authors I haven’t discovered yet and might enjoy. Bring it on. Please.
Meanwhile... So far this year I’ve finished six books, all of them crime fiction. Sort of. Mostly. Some made me laugh. One made me cry. They all made me look forward to the parts of the day when I can sink into my armchair, cradle my coffee mug and lose myself in an unfamiliar world.
Five out of the six left no doubt – they were crime fiction. They were plenty else as well, but there were bodies, there was sleuthing and eventually, one way or another, someone paid the price for being bad. Just one gave rise to ‘sort of’ and ‘mostly’, and surprisingly, it was by one of my all-time favourite crime writers. Which just goes to show... something.
The book was one of my Christmas treasures (thank you, lovely daughter), and the author is the sublime Reginald Hill. Lovely daughter is a dab hand at sourcing out-of-print backlist titles, and my non-Dalziel and Pascoe shelf is slowly filling up. Slowly because there are a lot of them to source; back in the 1970s and 80s he was writing under at least four names, and a dozen or more titles are still on my wishlist, even though I’ve read, and/or own, all twenty-three D & Ps, five Joe Sixsmiths and eleven standalones.
In a rare interview he once said that whenever he asked his wife whether his new novel should be a literary tome or another thriller, the answer was never in question: crime is far more fun to write about, and if writing isn’t fun, why bother doing it? But if ever there was an author who cast serious doubt on whether there should be a demarcation between litfic and crime fic at all, Reginald Hill is that author; try The Woodcutter and you’ll see what I mean.
And he started early. Earlier this month I read Who Guards a Prince, published more than thirty years ago, but give or take a bit of technological advance, as fresh as they day it came off the press. It’s definitely crime fiction; the protagonist is a policeman, there’s murder, arson, terrorism, corruption and various nasty goings-on. I loved it. The book I finished earlier this week is The Spy’s Wife. Again thirty-plus years old. But whether or not it’s crime fiction is very much a matter for discussion.
The premise is simple, and quite possibly topical at the time of writing: a spy recruited at the height of the Cold War has his cover blown, and does a runner, leaving behind his bewildered wife. The wife is the protagonist; she is completely ignorant of her husband’s other life, but has to deal with the fall-out. The story follows how she does this, and despite the odd staged accident and several suspicious characters lurking on the edge of her new life, it’s only a spy novel in the very loosest sense: far more a tale of her progress from suburban housewife reliant on a man (this was the 1970s, remember) to strong, feisty individual well able to make her own choices. Essentially it’s a novel about people – as, of course, all the best novels are, whether crime, romance or any other genre. The plot may keep you guessing, but it’s the characters who keep you reading, and maybe even more importantly, keep you coming back for more. And that is the case with every Reg Hill novel I’ve read.
So each time Reginald Hill began a new novel, it may have started out as a crime novel, but the result was invariably something rich, layered, textured and rewarding. Which is why I plan to go right on collecting his backlist.