Trigger Warning: child sexual abuse and rape.
Ah, Susan Hill, you seemed to have taken a different direction with this book from the rest of the Serrailler series. Had the gentility of Lafferton started to wane for you? Was there only so much you could do with the cloistered – and I choose that metaphor consciously – life Serrailler was leading?
But did you have to go down this route?
It’s not often that I’d put a trigger warning on a book review, but I think it is appropriate here.
After a series of apparently unconnected episodes from 2007, we flash forward to 2013 to find Serrailler summoned to a high profile meeting at Bevham Headquarters with Child Exploitation and Online Protection officers. The connecting thread between the various incidents was the uncovering of a child abuse ring running in Lafferton which had resulted in only one arrest, that of Will Fernley. CEOP wanted to recruit Serrailler to infiltrate Stitchford Therapeutic Community Prison where Fernley was being held and treated – and part of the book felt almost like a public service announcement raising awareness of Therapeutic Communities – to gain information on other members of the ring.
And it was at this point – which was fairly early on – that the novel lost a little credibility: Serrailler was far too senior to be placed in this sort of role; he had never been shown to have any real expertise in or much experience of child sexual abuse; he had never been shown to have any experience of going undercover; and, most damning, he had been lauded for how well he interacted with the press and media in previous cases. He was literally the public face of Lafferton justice! Press conferences and Q and As. His profile was sufficiently high that the chances of being recognised were significant even though the main villains were from outside Lafferton: even Devon has its internet – in most places.
Still, off he went and as an experienced suspender of disbelief, I went along with the ride. But a little more anxiously than usual. The nature of the criminality here is a leap ahead of the usual murder. Many reviews and comments I’ve read balked sufficiently at the child sexual abuse that they stopped reading – and that’s fine. Hill has never, with these series, heading into the darkness of the Scandinavian violence; she shies away from the content of the videos and images Serrailler watches in the same way with oblique references to the fact that
What he had seen was inside his head and could never be unseen, never be erased, it would haunt his waking and sleeping and bring him nightmares that caused him to break out in a sweat.
But we do hear the stories of the abuse from the lips of the abusers in their therapy sessions and there is certainly enough there to disturb or to trigger many readers.
The familiar comforts and contours of the detective novel took a twist towards the thriller genre – especially towards the somewhat unconvincing finale.
As usual, alongside Serrailler’s confinement, Hill continues to explore the convoluted relationships within his family. And is clearly in the “if in doubt, torture someone” school of creating conflict. The Deerbon / Serrailler family has had its share of traumas over the last nine books: murdered colleagues and love interests, disabled sisters, absent brothers, mercy killings and euthanasia aplenty, brain tumours and domestic violence. And now, with almost no warning, Simon’s father, Richard Serrailler, chooses to rape Shelley, the wife of a friend. Again, no lurid details are given; it is discretely done. But it was so left-of-field for a character who appeared generally to be a cold fish and the least likely character to be roused to anything passionate.
Why is it there?
Checking the publication date, which was 2014, it predates the viral #metoo movement which broke in 2017 with Alyssa Milano. But that hashtag had been coined earlier than that, in 2006 by Tarana Burke, and the concerns which it encapsulated (the sexual abuse and harassment of women in some workplaces by predatory or entitled and powerful men, and its toleration by others who ‘turned a blind eye’ to it or dismissing it as “laddish banter”) certainly predate that. The Jimmy Saville investigation in 2012 – and the “pulled” Newsnight expose – perhaps was the point when it became big news in the UK.
And the reason I mention it is because the novel very much shares the concerns of the #metoo movement. The victim blaming. The lack of support. The impenetrable male solidarity. The sense of entitlement which comes with status, money and authority. Just look at Shelley’s husband’s response to her telling him that she had been raped:
‘For God’s sake … if this is true … I’ll have him strung up…’
How more pernicious and toxic can one two-letter word be? “If this is true…” Or the DCI’s response when the father of a senior officer is accused:
‘the name of the accused doesn’t go further than you, me and the report. File it separately, password protect it and that’s that.’
‘I’m talking about discretion until we know more…’
As the DS felt “with pent-up anger like heartburn in her chest. ‘Discretion’? Cover-up?”
These issues are timely and powerful – and as has been mentioned repeatedly – Hill is trying to elevate the detective procedural novel into something literary by giving it a theme each time. And I have no problem with that, except that the choice of Richard Serrailler as rapist was… problematic. Domestic violence I’d have expected, but rape?
The other elements of a Serrailler novel are all here: Cat frets over hospices; Simon treats the women around him – especially Rachel who had managed to be invited to live in his sacred flat, on the proviso, it seems, that she neither touches nor moves anything – like shit; minor sub plots, such as Rachel’s taking over of the bookshop, merge into the main plot seamlessly.
Did I enjoy the book?
I’m not sure that “enjoy” was the right word. I was engaged and involved. Invested. I am interested to see the effect that the events here have on the series in the recently released The Comforts of Home: Hill does haunt her novels with the ghosts incurred in the previous ones. The death of Freya Graffham in The Various Haunts of Men is referenced in each subsequent book so I’m expecting some PTSD to be explored.
In conclusion, an ambiguous review. In ways, this was an important novel dealing with important and vital themes, but with severe credibility issues because those themes are shoe-horned into an existing set of characters uncomfortably.
I cannot help but feel that this would have been a much stronger novel if it were a standalone, or perhaps only tangentially a Serrailler novel.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐
Date: 8th October 2015