Nicolas Rhea, the pen name for Peter Walker (1936-2017), was a Yorkshire policeman for his entire career. He was also a writer, and beginning in 1979, he published more than 35 books in his beloved “Constable” series. The books, essentially a series of ongoing memoirs, became the basis for the ITV program “Heartbeat,” and were beloved in Britain. Now they’re being republished, and the first is Constable on the Hill.
It’s a delightful story. Think James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) if he had joined the police force instead of going to veterinary school. And it begins at the beginning of Rhea’s career – a move to a small Yorkshire town with his wife and three children, to become the village’s new bobby.
He’s looked upon somewhat suspiciously as a newcomer, until he drops his polished accent and instead speaks with the Yorkshire accent he was born and raised with. From then on, he’s “one of ours.” And he finds himself in all manner of interesting situations, providing a glimpse into what an English village policeman actually encountered on the job (and it wasn’t anything like Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, or anything else we’ve seen on television). In fact, in this first book, the closest Rhea gets to a murder is the death of a wallaby hit by a car after it escapes from a local zoo.
Rhea finds himself dealing with complaints by local gossips, all kinds of dog problems, a fox hunt that legally cuts across his front yard, how to pay for the funeral of a local squatter, the problems faced by a Catholic policeman when asked to read at an Anglican church service, and the sergeant who likes to give him all the plum assignments, including leading the circus parade. He also figures out a way to help a delivery truck unload a multi-ton piece of Scottish stone for a local sculptor.
Sometimes the issues are more serious – local youths breaking into a dovecote and killing the birds and theft of the prizes at a dance. But Rhea always seems to find a way to solve the problems and keep the threads of community woven strongly together. (And some of his solutions are ingenious, including how to deal with the complaining gossip.)
Constable on the Hill is a charming book, filled with local color and memorable characters. It’s no wonder that the series was so popular in Britain.