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An Advancement of Learning

by Reginald Hill (Harper Collins, 1971)

The bastard! Oh, the bastard. He’s broken my whisky.
(Andy Dalziel)

While Superintendent Andrew Dalziel (Dee-ell) maintains a healthy scepticism about the benefits of higher education, not even his fertile imagination can explain away the discovery of a long-buried body under a statue at Holm Coultram College in Yorkshire. As he moves his bulk into the premises of the college and digs deeper into the matter, he finds students and teachers on the romp, midnight beach orgies and secretive clubs.

Feeling strangely disconnected with the atmosphere of the place, he turns to Sergeant Peter Pascoe to be his guiding light. Pascoe, a social science graduate himself, predictably, feels right at home, and he sometimes looks back wistfully at the academic career he turned his back on. Running into an old flame from his universty days alternately sweetens and sours the situation.

But as the mystery of the remains under the statue draws to a close, another body turns up. With the students, led by the enigmatic Francis Roote, branding Dalziel a “fascist pig” and the teachers continuing to play their own politics, the Fat Man and his sidekick find it hard to dissociate fact from fantasy.

An Advancement of Learning is the second in the immensely popular Dalziel and Pascoe series that went on to span over three decades and twenty books—and still counting—not to mention a television series. Written almost forty years ago in the late 1960s, this one is quite far removed in terms of style as well as narration from the Reginald Hill of later years. There is no mistaking Hill’s talent, but the brilliance hadn’t begun to show yet.

A couple of characters that play key roles in the later books make their appearance in this one. One, of course, is Pascoe’s nemesis Franny Roote. The other is Ellie Soper, Pascoe’s future wife. The characters of Dalziel and Pascoe themselves do not seem to have evolved too far yet. Dalziel is as corpulent, balding, abrasive and moody as ever, but the sergeant seems to get one over him far too easily far too many times. Pascoe himself is a bit of a smart aleck, and is remarkably immune to a lot of Dalziel’s jibes. This is in direct contradiction to the Pascoe of the later books. While his contempt of Dalziel can be explained away by his youthful enthusiasm and the fact that the unexplained—unexplainable!—friendship is still a thing of the future, Peter Pascoe later came across as a far more gentle and sensitive soul. Is that the author maturing or the characters?

There seems to be a very dense population of women with large breasts and long legs in and around Holm Coultram college which the author decided the readers just couldn’t do without knowing. The frequent and irrelevant references to female anatomy gets predictable and tiresome after the first third of the book.

While certainly not Hill’s best work, An Advancement of Learning is an imperative read for those interested in the evolution of the series and the characters. By itself, it is a pretty brisk story with a rather Christie-ish air about it, but it falls short of the latter-day Hill standard.

RATING: 6.5/10