Monday, January 24, 2011

In The Spotlight: Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Reginald Hill's detecting duo of "The Fat Man" Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe remains one of the most popular and enduring teams in crime fiction. And Reginald Hill has contributed much to the genre besides this well-known pair. In The Spotlight would be less without a mention of Hill, Dalziel and Pascoe so today, let's take a closer look at their second outing,
An Advancement of Learning.

Much of the action takes place at Holm Coultram College, a former women's college that has since become co-educational. The school's undergoing renovations that involve moving an eight-foot-tall bronze memorial from one part of campus to another. When the statue and its base are lifted up, everyone's shocked to discover a body underneath. Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are called in to investigate the death, and before long, it's clear that the body is that of Alison Girling, former President of the College, to whom the statue was dedicated. Miss Girling had been College President until five years earlier, when she left for a skiing holiday and was later reported dead in a freak avalanche. Now Dalziel and Pascoe have to find out how her body ended up underneath the statue, and who would have wanted her to die.

Dalziel and Pascoe begin to trace Miss Girling's last weeks, and soon find themselves embroiled in academic politics and intrigue. It turns out that several people at the college were also there when Miss Girling was there, and could have had a reason to kill her. In the midst of the investigation, Anita Sewell, a student at the college, is found murdered. She had allegedly been having an affair with Biology Lecturer Sam Fallowfield and had accused him of falsifying her grades so as to fail her for that course. Fallowfield, who was hired at Holm Coultram College during Miss Girling's tenure there, seems to be a prime suspect in both deaths - until he too ends up dead. Now Dalziel and Pascoe have to untangle a complicated web of relationships and events to get to the truth behind all three deaths.

The murders take place in an academic setting, so one element woven through this novel is the academic atmosphere. The campus itself is described this way:

"…the place had been a teachers' training college for omse two or three hundred girls..Now it covered a much wider range of courses, vocational and academic…Numbers of students, staff and buildings had risen rapidly, and now the Old House, the early nineteenth-century mansion which once housed the entire college, was the centre of a star of concrete and glass."

Throughout the novel, too, we follow the academic routines of classes, staff meetings, academic politics and so on. This novel was published in 1971, so of course, times have changed greatly. But the story captures the college setting during a time of social, political and academic upheaval.

Another element, related to the setting, is the number of varied characters, some of them unique to the college setting of the time during which the story was written. For instance, there's the "Old Guard", represented by faculty members Jane Scotby and Edith Disney, neither of whom is happy about the opening of the campus to men. There are newer faculty members such as Sam Fallowfield, who want to make the school more responsive to the times and to student needs. There's College President Simeon Landor, the school's first male leader, who has to hold his campus together and deal with the police investigation, the publicity about the deaths, activist students and the divisions among his faculty. And then there's the Student Union. That's the group of student activists led by Franny Roote and his right-hand-man Stuart Cockshut. In Cockshut especially, we see the revolutionary politics of the time, and the desire for radical change that characterised many student groups of that era.

What's interesting about all of these characters is that they're revealed to the reader little by little. As Dalziel and Pascoe look into the history of the college and the stories of the men and women who teach and learn there, we learn their stories. We also learn that many of the people involved in this story are keeping secrets, and it's in part that slow unfolding of the truth that keeps the reader engaged.

And then there are the characters of Dalziel and Pascoe themselves. They've got a complex relationship and it adds much to the story. Dalziel is a working-class Yorkshireman who isn't particularly comfortable in what he sees as the rarefied atmosphere of a college campus. In fact, when he arrives on campus, Dalziel says,

"This is what they spend my bloody taxes on, is it?"

At the end of the novel, as he and Pascoe are leaving campus for the last time, Dalziel looks out the window of the car they're in and says of the students he sees:

"Look at the sods! … Just look at them. And this is supposed to be a place of bloody learning."

Pascoe, on the other hand, has a university education and is quite comfortable in the college atmosphere. He and Dalziel both have strong personalities and because they're quite different, are sometimes at odds. Dalziel's in charge and has no problem inconveniencing Pascoe if he wants something done. Pascoe, for his part, is all too well aware of Dalziel's shortcomings, and sometimes resents the way he's treated. And yet, the two detectives do have respect for each other and they have complementary skills. They've got a successful partnership that's lasted a long time because of this.

Their differences, though, make for some humourous moments. For instance, at one point, Pascoe's made plans for the evening with Eleanor Soper, an old flame who's now teaching at the college. Dalziel, however, has other ideas for Pascoe's evening and gives him a list of instructions. He ends them by saying,

"'I think I'll take a walk and see what's going on. You can stop here. You'll need the phone.'

Jauntily he left the room. Pascoe had to close the door behind him. He jerked two fingers at the solid oak panels.
When he turned round he found two students solemnly staring at him through the large open window. They nodded approvingly, each tapped the side of his nose with the forefinger, and they went their way. Despite the heat, Pascoe closed the window before he started his telephoning."

Since this is an early entry into the Dalziel and Pascoe series, the reader also gets to learn the backstory of some of the characters, such as Ellie Soper and Franny Roote, who figure in later novels.

The interplay between Dalziel and Pascoe, especially in this academic atmosphere that makes Dalziel uncomfortable and Pascoe right at home, so to speak, adds a rich layer to this mystery. So does the setting and the mix of characters. The link between a five-year-old murder and two recent deaths adds a layer of interest, too. But what's your view? Have you read An Advancement of Learning? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 31 January/Tuesday 1 February -
Body Count - P.D. Martin (No worries, those of you who voted otherwise. I'll be putting the other novels in the spotlight in due course)

Monday 7 February/Tuesday 8 February -
A Red Death - Walter Mosley

Monday 14 February/Tuesday 15 February -
The Man in the Queue - Josephine Tey


  1. I haven't read any of her books but I have seen the British TV series. I love the interaction between the two and love how rich the personality of Dalziel is. I always wondered how to pronounce Dalziel's last name.

  2. Oddly, this series has never appealed to me. I have read one or two of the books in Danish, but to me, ´the fat man´ is just a boorish, fat man. So I have decided that if I ever make up my mind to try them again, it must be in English - sometimes that does the trick. Not surprising, really, as it is nearly impossible to render dialect in Danish without making the story seem silly.

  3. Clarissa - The interaction between Dalziel (pronounced Dee-ell) and Pascoe is one of the most interesting things about the series. They're such different kinds of people that it is fascinating to see them in action together.

    Dorte - That's the thing about dialect. The nuances of it can disappear if it's translated. So I can completely see why the character of Dalziel put you off if you read any of Hill's work in Danish. Perhaps you're right and that if you read the English versions, they might appeal to you more. I've found, though, to be honest, that people are not neutral about Dalziel and Pascoe; they either love the series or dislike it.

  4. Hill is one of my favorites, and I love the way Dalziel and Pascoe bounce off one another, too. By the way, Hill has written some good stand-alones in addition to this series.

  5. John - I like the way that Dalziel and Pascoe play off one another, myself. They are a well-matched team, even if they are very different. And thanks for the reminder of Hill's standalones. I confess I haven't read them all, but yes, I agree - he's written some good 'uns.

  6. These are my favourite mysteries. I love both Pascal and Dalziel - they are salt and pepper, body and soul! I love how Dalziel takes the piss with Pascal and how he usually comes out on top (and Pascal admits it!) I adore Ellie and their daughter and I think Fanny is one of the richest secondary characters ever! I think I've read every one of these books - I've read some of Hill's stand-alones but never gotten into his other series - doesn't pull me. He's a fantastic writer about the 1st World War and in one of the Dalziel/Pascoe books he combines the interest with a good mystery. Thank you dear Margot - now when are you going to do a spotlight on Kate Atkinson???? What a pest I am.

  7. Jan - You've put your finger on some of the most important reasons that the Dalziel and Pascoe novels are so popular. The two sleuths really do complement each other and yes, Dalziel certainly does usually come out on top, much to Pascoe's chagrin. I have to admit I like that, too. You're also right about Franny Roote, who's a very interesting (even mysterious, certainly odd) kind of character. I'm so glad you enjoyed reading about them in this post :-). One of the nice things about these early entries in the series, too, is that we get to see how it all started, so to speak...

    And you're not being a pest - I will gladly put a Kate Atkinson in the spotlight :-).

  8. I love Dalziel and Pascoe. I enjoyed the earlier TV series featuring the pair too (although I seem to remember Hill didn't).

  9. Al - I remember, too, reading somewhere or other that Hill didn't like the TV series. But yeah, Dalziel and Pascoe are quite a beloved pair :-).

  10. I always enjoyed the pair. When the TV series came out I thought they had been portrayed extremely well.

    Interesting post.

  11. Glynis - They are a well-loved pair, aren't they? And they do complement each other. I'm glad you thought the series portrayed them well.

  12. I love academic mysteries and I haven't read this one. Thanks for the recommendation, Margot!

  13. Elizabeth - Oh, trust me - my pleasure! It's a little dated, but if you take it as a look at campuses in the late 1960's/early 1970's, it's a great "snapshot" of academia.

  14. Thanks for reminding me of this novel, Margot, which I read many years ago. As usual, I have forgotten who did it so I am tantalisingly in the dark, but I enjoyed your analysis and quotations.

    I enjoyed the first five or six in this series but gave up reading them in the end. Possibly not for the same reasons as Dorte - I quite liked the characters though some of them were a bit laboured - I remember one book about Sgt Weild's internal agonising which dragged on and on - I think it is because the pace was just so slow, and often presented in a deliberately confusing way as if the author is playing with the reader, challenging her/him to work out for themselves what is going on. I just stopped being interested in them (though I like Andy's outrageous behavior, but not as much as DI Frost's, RD Wingfield's great creation on page (not TV screen) ).
    best wishes

  15. Maxine - Thanks very much for your views. No doubt about it that some of the stories don't exactly race along. Are you thinking, by the way, of Death's Jest-Book? That's the one where Wield has a weird relationship with a call-boy and if that's the one you mean then yes, that one's pace is rather slow. I think one of the things that works in An Advancement of Learning is that Dalziel's behaviour is so out-of-place on the campus. And yet, it works.

    PS - I like Frost very much, too!

  16. Love your spotlight feature. I haven't read any books by this author, but this one peaks my interest. I remember the TV series.

    Thoughts in Progress

  17. Mason - Why, thank you :-). In my opinion (but I'm a purist, remember), the books are better than the TV series. If you liked the series, I'll bet you'd like these novels quite a lot.