You are here

Book review: <i>A Pinch Of Snuff</i> by Reginald Hill

A rollicking adventure starring Peter Pascoe, about blue movies, dubiously moralled Kinema Clubs, even more dubiously moralled girls, the women’s liberation movement, and whether or not the dentist did it, orchestrated by the fat and brilliant Superintendent Dalziel.

The story

While Peter Pascoe writhes in the unpleasant confines of the dentist’s chair, Shortner, his dentist, has something unpleasant on his mind that he wants to share with his police officer patient.

At first, the case seems relatively straight forward: Shortner believes that one of the “blue movies” he has seen in the controversial Calliope Kinema Club features a scene where the main actress actually being beaten for real—he could tell by the way the jaw shattered and the teeth flew about. Convincing his fat and fearsome Superintendent Dalziel that it was worth looking into, he scouts out the owner of the Kinema, the distributors and makers of the film, and finally, the girl in question. The whole scenario looks above board, and it seems that Shortner made a mistake. But just when Pascoe thinks the whole mess is nicely resolved, the plot thickens.

The owner of Calliope is severely beaten and his Club and house are trashed. On top of that, Shortner the dentist is accused of raping and impregnating a thirteen year old patient. Combine this with enemies of his wife’s women’s liberation group who just continue to pop up, an idea in Pascoe’s head to just keep pursuing the blue film lead, and a collection of influential names, and Pascoe’s just barely able to figure it all out himself.

The style

This is my first Dalziel and Pascoe novel. I’ve never even seen the BBC TV series. But after the entertainment that was A Pinch Of Snuff, I’ll happily admit that I’m a converted fan and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Reginald Hill in book stores.

The plotline was good. It didn’t have that gruesome shock value presentation of crimes that everyone’s so into today, possibly because it’s thirty years old or possibly because Hill isn’t into that. Which was, in itself, a refreshing change. The pornography aspect was dealt with tastefully, and the paedophilia angle was presented with compassion and a selection of, if not overly tasteful to the modern feminist, honest reactions from each character. The story rolled along quickly, presented a selection of red herrings and confusions, and was finally and satisfactorily spelled out by Dalziel at the end, with some twists that I probably wouldn’t have worked out at all. There were also several interesting philosophical side issues thrown in for good measure—the university educated Pascoe and his academic wife both present sociological views of actions they are taking and issues they are observing, and I thoroughly enjoyed a look at feminism in the seventies through the eyes of a male writer. These additions to the book really added extra dimension.

A Pinch Of Snuff was written in the third person limited from the point of view of Peter Pascoe, and as a character, he really makes this book what it is. He is three dimensional, honest, hilarious, and does his job with a dogged determination even on days where he just feels like everybody’s having a go. His character puts this book above many others in the genre, in my opinion—there is nothing contrived about Pascoe. He is what he is, he interacts with the fearsome Dalziel, his subordinates, the civilians, and his lovely and spirited wife Ellie in his own unique way, and Hill doesn’t try to force the character to conform to any particular stereotype of a man or a policeman. He really is quite a wonderful character.

Hill’s writing is great. He’s funny, with that tongue-in-cheek, dry British wit that manages to be self-deprecating at the same time. His charaterisations of Pascoe and Dalziel (who Pascoe always refers to mentally as “the fat man”) are wonderful, as are his characterisations of the peripheral characters. The dialogue is witty, fast-paced and wise-talking, without being contrived or embarrassing to read (as is so often the case!) and the crowning glory of this novel for me is Pascoe contemplating the deeper meanings of life in the context of a jar of gherkins on page seventy-nine. Loved it.

Who is this book for?

Lovers of British crime fiction? This is for you. Don’t let the fact that it wasn’t written yesterday turn you off, it puts most of its contemporaries to shame. And it’s a page turner.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Dirty Tricks, by Michael Dibdin, is the closest I can think of, simply for the dark and subtle humour present in both books. However, it’s not a traditional police drama.

In short

Title: A Pinch Of Snuff
Author: Reginald Hill
Publisher: Dell
ISBN: 0440169127
Year published: 1978
Pages: 327
Genre(s): Crime fiction
Review Type: