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The Roar of the Butterflies is the latest Joe Sixsmith novel by Reginald Hill, a writer better known for his more famous protagonists, the detectives Dalziel and Pascoe.  Hill has written far fewer books about the black Luton lathe operator turned PI, but The Roar of the Butterflies displays the same qualities which make the Dalziel and Pascoe series so notable: a remarkable turn of phrase, a generous tone and persistent pushing at the boundaries of what crime fiction can encompass.

Hill’s novels, to risk a fearsome cliché, function on several levels.  As straightforward crime thrillers, they provide plenty of involved plots, duplicitous witnesses and exciting dénouements.  The television series of Dalziel and Pascoe shows how comfortably the books can sit alongside R.D Wingfield’s D.I. Frost, or Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford.  (If any further demonstration is needed, try explaining to anyone who only knows the TV series why the bloke who wrote Dalziel and Pascoe should be winning literary prizes like the Booker.)  At the same time, the titles suggest that something more is going on: whilst some other crime novelists take their titles from sources such as legal terms (“Cruel and Unusual”) or nursery rhymes (“Along Came A Spider”), Hill rewrites the first line of Virgil’s AeneidArms and the Women – or borrows the title of a tragedy by the morbid Romantic Thomas Lovell Beddoes – Death’s Jest Book.

The Roar of the Butterflies gives off similar signals.  Joe Sixsmith is sitting in his office during a heatwave when a tall blond guy comes in and asks him to come to a meeting tomorrow at a club he’s never heard of to discuss some important business he doesn’t know about and leaves without explaining much.  Whilst Joe might be a bit flummoxed, the reader is in fairly comfortable territory: this is, after all a gumshoe novel, and unexpected strangers on mysterious business who don’t bother to explain their every motivation are the small change of the genre.  The striking metaphors are also a recognisable part of the game: “He had a quails-eggs-easy-over-on-cinnamon-toast kind of voice”; “a proper expensive Mediterranean yacht kind of tan, not the russet-and-red skin-peeling version which made any large gathering of Lutonians look like Vermont in the Fall”.  This isn’t very far from jocular sub-Chandler.  But though there are obvious debts to the PI tradition, the novel keeps throwing gestures towards other genres.  For example, the Residents’ Committee of one of the housing estates features a character called Major Sholto Tweedie, an odd enough name to hark back to a Major Sholto who appeared in The Sign of Four and was part of an investigation by Sherlock Holmes.  The estate he lives in, described as a model of community action and hope, is called Rasselas, the name of the prince of Abyssinia in an eponymous novel by Samuel Johnson.  (On the title page of an early edition of Rasselas appeared a quotation from La Rochefoucauld to the effect that “The Labour or Exercise of the Body freeth Men from the Pains of the Mind; and ‘tis that which constitutes the Happiness of the Poor”.)  Meanwhile, the hopeless, feral, crime-ridden estate opposite is called Hermsprong, the title of another Enlightenment novel, which involved a hero raised as a “noble savage” by Native Americans.

Another noticeable name draws the reader into a positive maze of cross-references.  The mysterious statuesque blond who appears in Sixsmith’s office is called Christian Porphyry (presumably a nod to St. Porphyry of the early Church), but Joe nicknames him the YFG, standing for Young Fair God.  Aside from the obvious similarity to Roald Dahl’s hero the BFG, the nickname recalls the opening of She by Rider Haggard, in which the golden-haired, staggeringly handsome and graceful hero Leo Vincey is referred to as ‘the Greek God’ by the inhabitants of Cambridge, and is accompanied by Howard Holly, who was “as ugly as he was handsome”.  The echo would hardly be strong enough to register, if Joe Sixsmith wasn’t so vehement about feeling like a lesser mortal in Porphyry’s presence, and if Hill hadn’t drawn on Rider Haggard elsewhere when describing male beauty and its reverse.  The fearsomely ugly Sergeant Edgar Wield, who works with Dalziel and Pascoe, is known as “Mac” by one of his lovers, as a short version of Macumazahn.  This is the nickname given to Allan Quartermaine, the hero of Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, with whom Wield identifies because Quartermaine is an ugly middle-aged man surrounded by handsome young heroes.  Both She and King Solomon’s Mines involve quests into the heart of Africa, the region from which prince Rasselas emerged.  Furthermore, though the plot of The Sign of Four involves India and the Andaman Islands, not Africa, Conan Doyle’s Major Sholto was involved in bringing back just the kind of fabulous jewels which Quartermaine and his companions hoped might result from their journey to King Solomon’s Mines.

There are obviously no clear and stable parallels being drawn here between individual characters in other works in and those in The Roar of the Buterflies; if there were, then tracing the echoes and references wouldn’t feel so much like an advanced case of literary paranoia.  However, that’s not to say that they don’t have any effect.  In setting up these apparent links, Hill locates his modern PI story in a tradition of British adventure stories, and Joe Sixmith is presented as part of the same literary world as Sherlock Holmes, Leo Vincey.  And though the references point in several directions (such as St. Porphyry, or the character named after the British sporting writer Surtees) there is an insistent cluster around one particular aspect of the British adventure novel: its concern with colonies.  I’ve already mentioned the colonial aspects of the novels Hill gestures towards, and they come from two specific periods of English literature.  Rasselas and Hermsprong appeared in the later eighteenth century, at the end of the era of the “first British Empire”, when Britain achieved effective supremacy as a colonial power, and when issues such as man’s essential nature (part of the theme of both books) were not abstract questions of philosophy, but rather could provide a moral and intellectual basis for attacking or defending the slave trade.

Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard were writing as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, when India was under direct rule from Britain, and the ideology of New Imperialism drove “the scramble for Africa”.  Haggard’s heroes, nipping in and out of “dark continent”, are more obviously involved with imperial history than Sherlock Holmes, sitting in his armchair in Baker Street, but it is striking how many of the Great Detective’s cases centre around characters from countries in which Britain was involved.  To take a handful almost at random: Dr. Watson first met Holmes when he was invalided out of the army after being shot in Afghanistan, the plot of A Study in Scarlet began in Utah, and the villain of The Hound of the Baskervilles turns out to be from Australia.  This may seem a very long way from Joe Sixsmith, the black P.I. from Luton with a penchant for wearing Bermuda shorts patterned with parrots, but these references and echoes remind us that Joe is very much a part of this same tradition.  His Afro-Caribbean skin tone and the stern Evangelical Christianity of his Aunt Mirabelle are part of the British history which threw Dr. Watson together with Sherlock Holmes, sent Allan Quartermaine to Kukuanaland and brought Rasselas out of Abyssinia.

Though, as I’ve suggested, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy The Roar of the Butterflies as a wisecracking gumshoe novel, it can also provoke a meditation on British imperial and literary history.  The fact that there aren’t clanging parallels drawn, and that the references are relatively subtle, means that this kind of reading is available to the audience, but not forced upon them.  It also makes for tempting speculation on what is an echo and what isn’t: for example, I’m sure the relationship between Joe Sixsmith and the simple-minded heavyweight Jurassic George originates somewhere in a Sherlock Holmes novel, in an encounter between a black boxer and a white detective, but that half-memory doesn’t shut down the possibilities of the story Joe and George are involved in by determining what they “mean”.  Rather, it allows their relationship to be fleshed out and made more meaningful by its reflection on the (possible) source.  The book doesn’t repudiate or denounce Britain’s past, or that of crime and adventure fiction, but rather explores how its hero is a part of that very same history.

This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, May 2009