But down here survival was too far beneath hope to make a motive, and the darkness was fetid with doubt and accusation. Time for the bottom line, as the Yanks put it. Place for a bottom line too. And the bottom line read like this. Colin Farr.
Trapped by the pit he hated. Driven into that trap by a man who hated him.
Very much a Yorkshire theme developing on Past Offences this month, with this being my fourth review of a book set in the county. ‘Appen I enjoyed Reginald Hill’s Deadheads, so moved swiftly on to his next CWA top 100 title, Under World. As the title implies, much of the book takes place underground, in a coal mine and its related workings. The text above is from the first chapter, which finds Hill’s policemen Dalziel and Pascoe trapped in an abandoned tunnel after following in a suspect.
The plot is driven by Colin Farr, a self-destructive personality in full flow. Farr’s father was a locally popular man who died soon after being implicated in the abduction of a local girl, and Farr returned home to the mining community of Burrthorpe to protect his good name. He arrived just in time to participate in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, which unlike most people he seems to have enjoyed. Farr revels in casual violence, drinks too much, sleeps with other people’s wives, antagonises the authorities, and cares little for himself, courting disaster whatever he is doing:
Instead of slowing for the turn, he twisted the throttle to full open. There might be something coming the other way; he might find the hedge more solid than it looked; even if he got through, the close clustering trees would be almost impossible to avoid. He went straight across the road. The hedge parted like a bead-curtain. He felt its branches scrabble vainly to get a hold on his leather jacket, then he was among the trees, bucketing over exposed roots, leaning this way and that as he twisted through the copse, decelerating madly.
Inspector Pascoe’s wife Ellie is teaching at a local college and meets Farr in one of her adult classes. Farr has elegance and magnetism, a provocative attitude, and manages to attract Ellie despite herself.
‘This is us.’ His hand grasped her elbow lightly, its touch chivalric rather than erotic, and they stepped out in a unity of movement worthy of Astaire and Rogers.
At the same time that Ellie is being drawn into Farr’s life, a retired policeman is about to publish his memoirs – and one of his revelations reignites the investigation into Farr’s father’s involvement in the abduction of young Tracey Pedley. Farr’s reaction to the news about his father is predictably extreme and he is soon being hunted for murder.
In my review of Deadheads I pointed out that Hill used the Dalziel and Pascoe stories to illustrate social and political issues. There is more of this in Under World. The book is a depiction of a close-knit community struggling to stay together in the face of recent history and economic privation. I remember the Miners’ Strike, but at the time I didn’t appreciate how appalling it must have been. In the words of a New Statesman article, miners:
endured extreme hardship, hunger, lack of fuel and police harassment. In the process, colliery communities powerfully refreshed their traditions of collective self-help. Women, in a notably male-dominated society, not only formed a transformative and unpredicted network of support groups, raising funds to feed and sustain the most financially pressed in almost every mining village, but asserted themselves politically, travelling across the country to make the miners’ case, appeal for support and join the picket lines.
All of which is reflected in the plot of Under World. Unsurprisingly there is hostility to the police, and Dalziel and Pascoe have to tread very carefully indeed (the local police station still bears the scars of a recent siege). The community doesn’t so much draw around Farr (with the exception of his mother nobody actually likes him) as band together against the police enquiry.
Another theme is darkness. Mining is a dangerous and dirty job where the tension between management and worker can lead to injury or fatality. Even the journey down to the bottom is terrifying. It is black down a mine – both dark and dirty – and Hill often has his characters wondering if this in some way rubs off on men’s souls.
Together they went into the ‘clean lockers’ where they stripped and hung up their clothes. Then naked they walked through into the ‘dirty lockers’ where the miners kept their working clothes known as ‘pit-black’. It was no misnomer, thought Colin Farr as he took out the trousers, waistcoat and football shirt which he were underground. Their original colour was beyond detection. Dampened by sweat and pit-water, smeared with oil and grease, impregnated with coal dust, to put them on was an act as symbolic in its way as the priest’s assumption of the chasuble, the novice’s of her veil. Only, what these stiff and stinking garments signalled was no embracing of a higher will, no movement to a higher plane, but the exchange of light for darkness, fresh air for foul, sky for earth. Their clammy touch was the embrace of the pit itself.
An intelligent, character-driven thriller.
First published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, 1988
352 pages in print
Final destination: A keeper