Sanditon Summer: Reginald Hill
I love Jane Austen updates, Austen spinoffs that translate the familiar stories and beloved characters to contemporary settings. I’ve read versions of Persuasion set in the worlds of Boston philanthropy and Scarsdale college admissions, a Sense and Sensibility that takes place during the Bath Jane Austen Festival, and a Mansfield Park featuring high school students in a summer theater program. I was crazy about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the hit 2012-13 web series that reimagined Pride and Prejudice as the video blog of a struggling communications grad student in California. At their best, these stories are both clever Janeite scavenger hunts (“Ooh, look! Instead of falling off the Cobb at Lyme, the Louisa Musgrove character contracts Lyme disease!”) and sweetly enjoyable romances in their own right. They combine the pleasures of familiarity and novelty, comfort food with special sauce. And they sidestep the biggest pitfall awaiting Austen sequel writers who stick to the Regency – the inevitably humbling effort to write prose that sounds convincingly like Jane Austen’s. Reginald Hill’s Sanditon spinoff, The Price of Butcher’s Meat, the subject of today’s Sanditon Summer post, is an Austen update with a twist: the book is both a continuation of Austen’s fragment (the title comes from Sanditon) and the twenty-third installment in Hill’s long-running series of mystery novels featuring the Yorkshire detectives Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe.
The prolific Hill (1936-2012) was a much-loved crime writer – his Dalziel-Pascoe series, which ended after the twenty-fourth book, was dramatized for British TV – and The Price of Butcher’s Meat (published in Britain as A Cure For All Diseases) makes clear why. It’s a well-written, highly entertaining novel, and if the resolution of the mystery isn’t quite as clever as I might have wished, that’s a relatively minor quibble. Hill’s Dalziel, recuperating from injuries suffered in a previous book, finds himself in the aspiring coastal health resort of “Sandytown,” which has migrated from Austen’s setting – Sussex, in southeastern England -- to Yorkshire, in the northeast. Congregating there are a host of characters, some new (a too-smooth psychiatrist, a brusque acupuncturist, a cripplingly shy faith healer) and some modeled on Austen’s originals, among them the enthusiastic civic booster Tom Parker, his young houseguest Charlotte Heywood, and the domineering grande dame Lady Daphne Denham, whose violent death launches the mystery plot. For its first hundred pages or so, Hill’s book closely tracks Austen’s fragment, with sly updates that Janeites will enjoy: Lady Denham has given her nephew a family Rolex, rather than the pocket watch of Austen’s version; and Tom Parker has named his oh-so-modern new home “Kyoto House,” after the climate-change treaty, rather than “Trafalgar House,” Austen’s 1817 version of a ripped-from-the-headlines moniker. In a further Easter egg for Janeites, Hill’s delightfully strong-willed and observant Charlotte recounts her version of events in emails to her absent sister, a sister named (but of course) Cassie. Hill ignores some of the comic potential in Austen’s characters, making less than he might have out of Diana Parker’s officiousness and hypochondria, or Sir Edward Denham’s dedicated seductiveness. And elements of his story probably have added resonance for those who have read the earlier books in the series: although the mystery plot stands alone, I suspect that the relationships among Dalziel, Pascoe, and a third character with whom they share a complicated backstory would mean more to a devoted Hill reader than they did to me. But never mind. The book’s pleasures are great, and despite the obvious genre differences between the domestic novel and the police procedural, Hill has something important in common with Austen: an ear for dialogue. Although it seems unlikely that Austen would ever have written anything quite like “Took all of ten seconds to realize she were dotty as a Frenchman’s jock strap.” Reginald Hill. The Price of Butcher’s Meat. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.