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An Advancement of Learning, by Reginald Hill

January 27, 2015

Felony of the Week: An Advancement of Learning, by Reginald Hill

Book-collectors love first novels. The first appeal is their relative scarcity. For example, in 1989, when A Time to Kill was published, John Grisham was an obscure Mississippi lawyer. The book had been rejected by nearly 30 agents and publishers, and tiny Wynwood Press, in upstate New York, had no reason to have high expectations: It printed just 5,000 copies.

Get your hands on one of those copies and, assuming it’s in glorious condition (and that’s a big assumption), you can sell it for well over $4,000. There were only 5,000 to begin with, and after 25 years, the odds of finding one in collectible condition…are very narrow indeed. And those odds drive up the price and make collectors salivate.

Striking a slightly less mercenary note, collectors also prize first novels for their surprise factor. Before Interview With the Vampire was published, Anne Rice was just a depressed grad student, and nobody since Bram Stoker had had a real hit with the undead. Surprise! There’s something very appealing – to some collectors – about owning a book that changed the game, that created a genuine sense of excitement where none had existed before. Interview With the Vampire is the literary equivalent of watching Marilyn Monroe’s teeny tiny turn in “All About Eve”: One suddenly realizes that Golly Moley, there’s something…there’s really something here.

Now, collectors are not readers (in fact, some don’t even bother to read the books they collect: As a bookseller, this used to break my heart). But there are reasons for readers to love first novels, albeit different ones. The most compelling reason is the extent to which that first novel may distill the writer’s truest passions. Often the writer will have spent years crafting and revising, and the book is the product of a kind of dedication that no second or third of 15th novel can hope to match. Writers – particularly writers whose first novels got everyone excited – get dinged for “sophomore slump,” and no wonder: They have no experience at knocking out a novel in the space of a year, and besides, they’ve already offered up their best ideas. That second novel may well read as tired, rushed, utterly lacking in the inventiveness that made No. 1 such a crackerjack.

However, it is not ever thus. Yes, the mystery field is full of writers whose second novels fail to live up to the promise of their first – Lee Child’s The Killing Floor, for instance, is a knockout, while the follow-up, Die Trying, is fairly weak and contrived (Child hit his stride again with No. 3). But there are also plenty of writers who take one or two or even several books to find their voices, who are forced to keep battering away at the typewriter until they stumble on their strengths. Val McDermid is a prime example. Her early books, – two series, about a lesbian journalist and a (straight) PI in Manchester, respectively – are solid, but somewhat stiff and formulaic. Then in 1995 she published The Mermaids Singing, and it was as though she had somehow tapped a previously unknown well of talent – I remember speculating, with my bookstore partners, that she must have sold her soul to the devil, to have suddenly become so good. The book won the Crime Writers Association’s Golden Dagger, one of the field’s two most prestigious awards, for best mystery of the year.

And there are a number of Felony writers who fall into the camp of “got better over time.” Elizabeth Ironside’s first book, A Very Private Enterprise, won the Crime Writers Association’s John Creasey award, for best debut mystery, in 1984, but the difference in quality between that book and her next – Death in the Garden, published ten years later – is breathtaking: It’s Death in the Garden that reviewers called “a masterpiece.” Laura Wilson’s “Ted Stratton” series, based on real crimes of the 1940s and ‘50s, has been good from the git-go, but each book has been several notches beyond what came before – cleaner, more assured, the characters more sharply drawn. It’s been a great pleasure watching her get better and better with every book.

And then there’s Reginald Hill, the reason for this lengthy post. The “Dalziel and Pascoe” series (or “Pascoe and Dalziel,” I guess, depending on which of the two you favor) is a marvel. The characters are nuanced and interesting, and the books take in and react to the extraordinary social changes that occurred between 1970, when the first was published, and 2009, when the final book in the series came out. Best of all, the characters grow and change over that period. Hill’s understanding of them got richer with each book, and their relationships with each other deepened and shifted in turn.

Given that kind of trajectory, it’s especially understandable that series readers (and particularly “completists”) want to go back to the beginning and read from the first book on. In terms of reading for pleasure and in terms of more serious analysis, it’s very satisfying to view these characters, and Hill’s enormous talent, unfolding. There’s only one problem: The first book stinks.

Ooohhh, no, it doesn’t. I could point you to 20 stinkier books without trying. But by comparison with its sequel, An Advancement of Learning, published the very next year, A Clubbable Woman is…a little tedious. Sure, Peter Pascoe is there, bright and shiny and just out of university, stuffed with a college boy’s arrogance and rather mystified as to how he’s become a Yorkshire cop. And Fat Andy Dalziel is on hand, brash and brilliant, a pint glass permanently sloshing away in his massive paw. Their relationship, of course, is at the core of both the book and the series that followed, so it is a kick to see their first meeting, watch them stumble toward a way of working together. But one has to slog through an awful lot of stuff about rugby en route to the relationship-bits (“Clubbable Woman” is a pun, and the setting is a rugby club). And you can’t even just skip over the rugby parts, because the plot hinges on them, which means you actually have to pay attention to the stuff about rugby. Arrgghhh. It’s no wonder that so many Felony readers buy A Clubbable Woman…and stop there.

Which breaks our heart, and for a couple of reasons. First, the series is one of the best – wittiest, most moving, most carefully crafted, most replete with unexpected joys – in the history of the genre, and we hate the idea of readers giving up on it. And second, the next book, the very next one, published just a slim year later, is absolutely great. The rugby club is gone gone gone, and instead we’re at a university. It’s 1971, and as you may know or even remember, there was something of an uneasy relationship at the time between coppers and college kids. Pascoe, so newly hatched from college life, is struggling to determine where his loyalties lie, and Fat Andy is embarking on his habit – which would hold for the next 30-odd years – of surprising everybody in ways big and small. An Advancement of Learning is just a delightful book, and we desperately want you to read it. How desperately? A fat (Andy) 50% off, is how. Witty writing, clever plotting, and the most dynamic duo since the Boy Wonder hung up his tights – you really truly won’t be sorry. Enjoy.

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