The Dalziel and Pascoe series: where to start

I am a great fan of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe mystery series. It is perhaps the only series I have read as an adult on a more or less completely random basis, grabbing things from the library as they became available, filling in with purchases what the library did not have. That was the first time. I went back and reread them recently for pleasure but also specifically so I could write this post and be clear on how to recommend reading them. I group the books into four rough categories as starting places. I had a bad experience with a friend who insisted on starting with the first one despite my repeated comments that it would not show what was special about the series, and sure enough, he declared it fine but not special and declined to read any further. I would have kicked him in the shins for that, but not getting to read On Beulah Height is punishment enough for one person, and he has brought it on himself. Still: do not let his fate be yours.

Please note that I actually consider them all worth reading–when I say “for the completist,” I include myself in that–but not all equally worth reading, and certainly not all good entry points. The numbers are their series order both in publication and in internal chronology, with one exception to the latter. I know that some people have an allergy to reading out of order, but really, it’s worth it here. And also if you are not committed to reading a 23-volume series in its entirety, who can blame you? But this is not like the series where the author got their best work out of the way immediately, not at all, and while there is continuity, it’s episodic as mystery series often are. You’ll figure it out. There’s incluing.

I realize as I am finishing this post that I have forgotten to mention: they are funny. No one told me the Aubrey/Maturin series was funny, and so it took me five years longer to read it than it otherwise would have. So: in addition to their other virtues, these are funny, but not in the mode of Humorous Fiction Har Har Har. No, the funny bits are organic. They’re funny like things really are funny, not like a forced jokeyness.

Best Places to Start
Bones and Silence (#11): Really hits his stride here. Also Wield consistently plays more of a role, which is good because Wield and also because the more Hill is clear that Peter Pascoe needs help to carry a book, the better. Dalziel mostly does it, but Wield, Ellie, and the later junior cops help a lot.
Recalled to Life (#13): Good mid-period D&P. This is why this series.
Arms and the Women (#17): This is where I started, and I commend it to you for that purpose. I picked it up at random, having heard that this author/series were good, and I’m not sure I could have done better. All the characterization, all the reference and structural games are here. If you reread it after reading the rest, you will find callbacks to very early books and also to more recent ones, but that in no way damages it on a first read; they are integrated entirely smoothly if you’re coming up on them as new information. Really, I’m willing to give props to the other two in this category, but: start with Arms and the Women.

Pretty Good Starting Points
Exit Lines (#8): Hill has started to play with reference and structure here, and it’s late enough in the series that he has also got Dalziel much more developed as a character.
Child’s Play (#9): One of the most suspenseful books I have ever read, particularly if you have not read later volumes in the series. Even if you have, it’s…well, look, I found it incredibly gripping even knowing how something had to turn out. Without that, yikes, try not to tear the pages as you clutch them.
The Wood Beyond (#15): Leans a bit on previous characterization for a starting point. Still interesting, layered, referential, well-characterized: having all the virtues of this series.
On Beulah Height (#16): Possibly the best mystery novel written since the death of Dorothy Sayers. I only don’t recommend it as a best place to start because you will get more out of it if you have one or two of the others under your belt for emotional freight/impact,  but get to this as soon as possible. One of the best reasons to start reading any of this series is to get to On Beulah Height. But you will want to know who these people are to each other, and particularly if you have not encountered Yorkshire dialect before, you will get more of the emotional impact of some key moments if you have had other books in the series teaching you the rhythms and weights of it.
Midnight Fugue (#23): I waffled on the placement of this: is the very last book really only second tier as a place to start? I think so, actually; the relationships are important but fairly well spelled out, and you’ll have spoilers for specific events but I think probably in the direction to make them intriguing rather than boring. It was not written as a definitive ending to the series; far from it. So…you only know how it ends, not how it ends, if that makes sense. But still: you could do worse.

Okay But Not Ideal
An April Shroud (#4): This is where Hill figures out how to do Dalziel’s interiority. Still much closer to standard form and content of the genre, but starting to feel out the characterization better. If you are absolutely set on starting very early in this series, this is the earliest you should possibly consider. I still don’t recommend it, but.
A Killing Kindness (#6): If this is what you can find first, it’s better than not reading them at all.
Deadheads (#7): Looser, more fun, structurally out of the ordinary for its genre.
Underworld (#10): Same idea as Killing Kindness: not bad if that’s what you’ve got
Pictures of Perfection (#14): Slight and gimmicky and still past the point where Hill really got himself sorted as an author, so perfectly charming to read.
Dialogues of the Dead (#18) and Death’s Jest Book (#19): These are really one story. You can start with the two of them as one story and get a very nerdy wordy mystery. Bad ideas include: a) starting with Dialogues of the Dead with no access to Death’s Jest Book to read very shortly thereafter, and b) starting with Death’s Jest Book at all. Treat them as a unit; this is a situation where they are only split because they would be too long otherwise. The only reason I don’t rate them higher is that there is a recurring character I am not that keen on, but on the other hand that may be less annoying if you’re encountering him for the first time.

For Heaven’s Sake Don’t Start Here
A Clubbable Woman (#1)
An Advancement of Learning (#2)
Ruling Passion (#3): For the first three, Hill has not yet figured out how to do Dalziel’s interiority, so while he clearly knows that Dalziel is smarter than people give him credit for, the characterization is not nearly as strong as it will later be. Nor is there as much
structural invention, playing with form and reference, etc.–things that are strong points of the series later. These read like standard British mystery novels of their time. Which is not a terrible thing to be but is a terrible way to get a feeling for the strengths of this series.
A Pinch of Snuff (#5): Despite having figured out Dalziel’s interiority more, this is not yet the strongly inventive/referential later part of the series…and it’s pretty objectionable in several ways for our time, not to mention the ways it intended to be distasteful on purpose in its own time.
Asking for the Moon (#12): This is a short story collection, and mystery short stories are very hard to make satisfying. Also Hill had no idea how long he would stay alive and keep writing these books, and the semi-science fictional aspect of one of these tales does not weather well–nor does its vision of Dalziel and Pascoe’s future relationship, compared to how he actually developed it. This is for the completist only.
Good Morning, Midnight (#20): Not entirely believable in its Dalziel characterization and focusing on giving backstory for that character whom you don’t have any reason to care about if you’re just starting. A fine enough book, just not a standout or a good introduction.
Death Comes for the Fat Man (#21) (Known in the UK as The Death of Dalziel): Do not start a series whose appeal is substantially in Andy Dalziel with a book with very little Andy Dalziel in it. This is the most Pascoey a book has been in quite a few, and as such: fill this in later when you’re already engaged with the characters.
The Price of Butcher’s Meat (#22) (Known in the UK as A Cure for All Diseases, which is a better title in general and for this book in specific): The stylistic experimentation in the first third of this book is via a young woman’s emails, and Hill signals that they are emails
largely by leaving out all apostrophes. I like the character–I like seeing more of her later not in email perspective–but this is an experiment that does not work well and is front-loaded in the book, so if you start with it, you are likely to give up completely. And miss
out thereby.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *