How does Simon Serrailler recover from a vicious assault at the hands of paedophiles, which left him on the verge of death? How does Serrailler manage his post-traumatic stress disorder?
Entry number nine in Susan Hill’s DCS Simon Serrailler series picks up where the previous novel, The Soul of Discretion, finishes: Serrailler is in hospital recovering from the devastating and near-fatal injuries sustained when his undercover operation was blown. Never one to avoid torturing her characters, Hill then serves up a dose of infection which leads to the arm which could have been saved being amputated instead.
I had some concerns – previously blogged about – about the logistics of placing Serrailler undercover in prison in The Soul of Discretion. But, in this novel, placing him on the remote island of Taransay – first visited as a prelude in The Shadows in the Street – makes sense. It had previously been a refuge for him, braced by salt air and winds and the locals including the fling he had with Kirsty McLeod. Following his ordeals, his return to that refuge and its cloistered community was natural enough, although it did smack a little of running away from some of his issues. And the thriller elements which had crept into The Soul of Discretion faded away with that sea wind: as Hill says,
If you wanted the exhilaration of gales, and to be brushed aside by their force, Taransay, with its neighbouring islands, was the place to come.
We also return to the familiar and the familial exploits of the extended Serrailler family, particularly the Deerbon family, with marriages, disgraced fathers returning from a self-imposed exile in France, itinerant teenage boys wandering around England undecided about their futures – Sam Deerbon being given a freedom I doubt my parents would have afforded me once I’d finished A-Levels.
One thing missing from this installment – and perhaps a blessed relief – is that for once, Serrailler does not act like an entitled shit around women. I may be wrong but I think his behaviour around women, and particularly those with whom he is or has been in romantic relationships, was appalling in every single novel – except perhaps the first, The Various Haunts of Men. Ex-lovers whom he ghosted, lovers whom he strung along, poor Rachel with whom there was so much unresolved at the end of the previous novel. Here, he seems quite reasonable: he doesn’t even try anything on with Kirsty whose husband had given him a well deserved thump in The Shadows in the Street but is now as close to a friend as Serrailler has.
Perhaps, that is an indication of the PTSD because there seemed precious little other evidence of it. Not a flashback, not a nightmare, no hypervigilance, no disturbed sleep. A vague dissatisfaction with his flat, a shock when he sees Rachel, a conversation with Cat in which she informs him and the reader that he has PTSD – because otherwise we may not have realised it. For a series of novels which eschews the reset button and chooses to linger on the events of previous installments, the lack of focus on PTSD seemed to be an absence, especially when Cat’s medical student lodger Molly was shown with it in A Question of Identity, following an assault on her in The Betrayal of Trust.
The pacing, also, seemed a little off and rushed and I found that I was left with questions. How did the relationship between Cat and Chief Constable Kieron Bright develop from mutual support to romance? What happened to their wedding? For a writer as concerned with the family developments of the secondary characters as Hill is in this series, it seemed an oddly underplayed momentous event. Over that, I wanted some resolution to the relationship with Rachel: he left her as a live-in partner in The Soul of Discretion before he left for his undercover assignment and, whilst the relationship was tense and awkward, it did not end and that seemed like a very loose end!
However, this is a crime novel and there are crimes buried in the personal narrative: as Serrailler recuperates in Taransay and settles in for the majority of the novel, his Chief Constable and new brother-in-law – a possible conflict of interests which might develop later in the series – tries to break him back into work with a missing persons cold case. Albeit one where the perpetrator is known from the outset, but had never been pursued because of a lack of evidence and he was already serving life for other offences. Additionally, a fellow incomer to the island of Taransay goes missing and is found murdered a few days later and, somewhat dubiously, Serrailler is given responsibility for the preliminary investigations. There was a twist in that case and – spoiler alert – the victim, Sandy, who had been accepted as a woman for years, is revealed at the autopsy to be transgender. Most character immediately responded by assuming that they should now shift pronouns to “him” rather than “her” but find that they can’t… My understanding is that to use “him” to address someone whose chosen pronoun is “her” to reflect her gender identity would be offensive and potentially transphobic. And, yes, I understand that this may reflect the ignorance of the characters rather than the author, and that no-one did so maliciously but only in their attempts to understand, but no-one addresses the issue. Anyway, alongside this, there is a series of arson attacks in Lafferton, although they are treated rather peripherally.
The crimes themselves are dealt with and resolved to a greater or lesser extent – Hill rarely gives a neat narrative resolution! And I wondered how ironic the title was: Richard Serrailler’s homes in France and Lafferton did not offer him much comfort; nor did Simon Serrailler’s flat; even Cat’s farmhouse was more tense and awkward than usual.
Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, with familiar characters and good sound writing. I mean, you’d expect nothing else from Susan Hill. But it felt to me almost like a bridging exercise, helping return Serrailler back to Lafferton and to work as DCS.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐
Date: 21st March 2019
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