REGINALD HILL's Deconstruction of Dalziel

Written by Reginald Hill

I’m not very good at writing about myself. I once tried to do a mini-autobiography for an American publisher but soon had to give it up as I found I was composing fiction. So for me to write a piece about the real life origins of Andy Dalziel isn't going to be easy.

And yet I do know more than most people about the Fat Man.

For a start I know how to pronounce his name. His fans fall into three categories, none with a moral superiority over any other. There are those who pronounce the name as spelt; there are those who know they shouldn't do that but aren't quite sure what they should do, ending up with something like Dai Zeal or Dazzle; and there are those who get it right. The trick is to ignore everything except the first and last letters. D.L. Dee Ell. That's it. You've got it. Now you can try the old Scots saying, still so very apt:

"De'il and Dalziel begin with ane letter.

The deil's nae gude, and Dalziel's nae better."

For of course Dalziel is the most terrible kind of Yorkshireman - he is a Scottish Yorkshireman.

I know how it happened. His father, Alexander Selkirk Dalziel, was an Ayrshire farm boy who owed his life to bread. In 1914, aged 16, he lied his way into the Black Watch where a kindly sergeant consigned him instantly to the cookhouse. Here a talent for baking revealed itself and despite his macho protests, he found himself permanently attached to the officers' mess kitchens where he spent the war pounding dough while the German guns pounded his comrades. 1918 saw him demobbed in Glasgow where his country's gratitude exacerbated his sense of guilt at having survived. The gratitude was not a burden he had to bear for long, but the guilt stayed with him for the rest of his life.

He didn't head home to Ayr because his childhood lay there, and that was a country never to be revisited. Instead he and a set-vice pal pooled their small resources and started a baker's business in the Gorbals. For a while they struggled by, but when the slump came, they discovered the old economic truth, that when people's pockets grow as empty as their stomachs, it's easier for the small tradesman to give than get credit. The business failed and finally Alex was forced to take the last resort open to a desperate Scot, which is the high road to England.

Chance and a lift on a flour mill delivery truck dropped him at the gates of the huge Ebor Biscuit and Confectionery factory in Mid-Yorkshire. It was as easy to walk in and ask for a job as to keep heading south. He got a week's trial. After three days they offered him terms which he refused. After six they offered him terms which he accepted.

After he'd been there a month, a young woman called Nell Chadwick who spent her days dusting doughnuts and her nights deploring the post-war shortage of personable young men, nearly ran him down with her bicycle. It took three More near misses for Alex to catch on that a cap was being set at him. Thereafter things speeded up considerably. Three months later they were married, and seven months after that, Andrew Dalziel's full throated bellow was first heard in the land.

I know a great deal more about Andy Dalziel's upbringing, his school exploits, his adolescent adventures, and of course his early constabulary career. I may be persuaded to tell you about it one of these days, and indeed (here follows a short commercial break) if any of you would care to read about Dalziel and Pascoe's very first encounter, may I draw your attention to the paperback Asking for the Moon which as well as Dalziel's Ghost, Pascoe's Ghost, and One Small Step, includes a brand new story, The Last National Service Man, based on that momentous meeting.

But, you may be objecting, all this is in your mind. It's fiction. It doesn't really tell us anything about the real creative origins of Fat Andy. But there's the trouble. As I said at the beginning, I’m not very good at autobiography. I could trawl through my past and come up with a clutch of likely suspects: a platoon sergeant from the army, a couple of Yorkshiremen I won't name for fear of getting my head kicked in, Dr.Johnson, Falstaff…

There, that really gives the game away! After more than a quarter of a century, Dalziel is as familiar to me as Falstaff.

But Falstaff isn't real either, you cry.

Well, he's realer to me than most of you reading these words, just as Dalziel is more real to most of you than his alleged creator is ever likely to be. This doesn't mean that any of us are candidates for the psychiatrist's chair. Most people of' intelligence and imagination count among their closest friends characters from books. And why not? They have many advantages of the carnal variety. They don't borrow money from you, they're never sick over your carpets, and when you’re told what they're thinking, you can usually take it as gospel. Now admittedly one of the great pleasures of having friends is discussing them (from the best of possible motives, of course) behind their backs. And one of the greatest distresses is being caught at it. In the case of fictional friends, this would seem a non-applicable danger, but I'm not so sure. Personally I tend to put my trust in the author to tell me as much as I need to know. Where Holmes learned to play the violin, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, are not questions which make me pause long for an answer, but I can see how the scholars who love to drop their buckets into empty wells and grow old in drawing nothing up, might pass a harmless decade or so in such pursuits.

But for an author, it is different.

I mean, would you fancy a real Andy Dalziel catching you talking about him behind his enormous back? OK, so it can't happen to you because he is a fiction. But if he lives anywhere, it is in my mind, and I have to be much more careful. I often hear myself telling audiences that my initial intention was that Dalziel should be a caricature, a grotesque exaggeration of everything that made up the traditional old fashioned, unsubtle, technologically Luddite, seat-of the pants cop; a foil in other words for the true hero of that first book, Peter Pascoe.

But even as I speak I feel uneasy. At what point did I change my mind? I look at the second chapter of A Clubbable Woman where he makes his first appearance, dropping his jacket over the back of a chair like a Bedouin pitching camp, and I find him already fully formed, no foil this but a real and very solid presence. Was this the result of late revision? I have no recollection that it was - and no way of checking from my original manuscript without heading for the archive of Boston University Library where it lies. One day I may check, but I think not. Too much like grave-digging, and anyway the grave is empty, for in my mind I hear that booming laugh as the Fat Man mocks my refusal to accept that he has been alive at least as long as I have, and intends to do his best to outlast me.

So if already in those early pages of that first book he is fully formed, where on earth did he come from? Could he be (how shall I tell my wife?) my Mr Hyde? I look for comfort to my very first book, written before A Clubbable Woman though published after it, Fell of Dark, recalling that here too I created a Detective Superintendent, but one very different from Andy Dalziel. And there he is, name of Melton, short, thin, wearing an ill fitting blue suit, speaking in a high pitched but quiet and controlled voice, patient, probing, courteous, educated surely this means I'm safe? If Andy Dalziel really had been lurking inside of me all my life, surely he'd have taken this first opportunity of bursting out? Then I read on, and I meet Detective Inspector Copley, sixteen stone of solid flesh, who back heels doors shut when he enters a room, and smiles, showing two rows of great yellow teeth, as he looms over the suspect like a mountain peak. Even his dismissive comment about the sympathetic Melton has a familiar ring -"He's so bloody fond of underdogs, he'll end up getting shagged in the street." Doesn't Dalziel use almost exactly the same form of words somewhere…?

Enough is enough. There, are some things you just don't mess with. Dalziel is with me forever, and much as I love you, dear readers, I'm not going to risk putting him out of countenance and provoking him to a full scale takeover.

I enjoy a single malt as much as any man, but not by the bucketful, for breakfast!

So that's quite enough about the gross, grotesque, vulgar, violent, menacing, mountainous, but essentially decent and loveable Andrew Dalziel.

I've no idea whatsoever where he came from.

If on the other hand you'd care to hear about the real life original of the tall, slim, fair, elegant, eloquent, sensitive, intellectual Peter Pascoe, and you have an hour or two to spare, just say the word and I'll reveal as much as my natural modesty permits. Ignore that booming laugh in the background. It's just a rare form of tinnitus some of us sensitive artists suffer from.

Death's Jest-Book, published by Harper Collins on May 7th 2002 £16.99 hbk

Reginald Hill


Reginald Hill

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