I’ve enjoyed various Susan Hill novels: The Woman in Black and The Little Stranger in particular and so it was that I was looking forward to picking up on the Simon Serrailler crime series which I hadn’t come across before. In honesty, I picked up A Question of Identity first which is the seventh in the series first and then – before starting that one – picked up Various Haunts Of Men to see where the series started.
This is a delightfully and unashamedly British crime novel. It’s not even set in London but in the leafy Cathedral town of Lafferton to which our main protagonist, Freya Graffham, has retreated after escaping a difficult marriage.
The town of Lafferton is familiar and comforting but I was expecting and hoping for something more from it somehow. More character; more presence; more atmosphere. The Hill and its brooding Wern Stones and its various dog walkers, joggers and cyclists was lovely: knowing how ritualised such people are with a strange balance between icy aloofness and civil courtesy, Hill created these encounters effectively. I, personally, would have liked the cathedral itself to have had a more prominent role, looming over or protecting the city. We visit it occasionally and glimpse it through windows but I’d have liked to have felt it.
There are some elements that jar a little too. The neighbouring village of Starly, in which had bloomed a New Age community of acupuncturists and psychic healers, hypnotherapists and a psychic surgeon did not strike me as a realistic community and the alternative therapies sub-plot was not resolved. In fact some very significant issues – and the concurrent efforts put into both the writing and reading – were left just hanging. Completely. Perhaps Hill – who I know is a very competent and careful writer, a narrative craftswoman – has left these threads to be picked up in the subsequent book or books. But, judging this as a standalone novel, I felt just a little cheated. Other themes were similarly touched upon, I suspect, to be revisited later: the relationship between Simon Serrailler’s parents; the absent third triplet; his relationship with women.
In terms of plot, the novel revolves around the disappearance of a number of women (and a man and a dog). It’s not until halfway through that these disappearances are even confirmed as anything suspicious and the novel does span a period of perhaps six months.
It was a pleasant change that Hill eschewed the current vogue of hyper-violent death and torture described in intimate and graphic detail. Even when death does occur, Hill is discrete and the violence is minimal and implicit.
It is true that the killer is fairly easy to predict here. From about half way through. But I don’t think that was the point of the novel: it is that very British thing, a character-driven novel. Simon Serrailler, the eponymous character of the series, is only really seen through the prism of other people’s eyes: Graffham’s or his sister, Cat Deerbon’s. He therefore remained distant and enigmatic and we only really heard his voice a couple of times in the final pages. He was charming without being a charmer; he broke hearts but was no womaniser; he was cool and controlled but still passionate and inspired passion in others.
This was not a breath taking book but it was a good read and a solid introduction to an intriguing set of characters. There are obvious parallels with Morse or Midsomer Murders but Lafferton and it’s collection of sympathetic and eccentric and enigmatic characters are distinctive.
Will I continue the series?
There’s certainly enough there to intrigue me enough to keep going!