Simon Serrailler finds himself in devastating new territory as a sophisticated drugs network sets its sights on Lafferton and the surrounding villages
DCS Simon Serrailler has long regarded drugs ops in the Lafferton area as a waste of time. Small-time dealers are picked up outside the local secondary school, they’re given a fine or a suspended and away they go. And rinse and repeat. But when the body of a young drug addict is found in neighbouring Starly, the case pulls Simon into a whole new way of running drugs. The foot soldiers? Vulnerable local kids like Brookie and Olivia, who will give Simon a bitter taste of this new landscape…
There is something about these Serrailler novels that is infinitely pleasant: they are comfortable reads, reassuring in some way. They are not truly crime or detective novels, in my opinion, more slices of domestic life or a soap opera in which the main character – Simon – is by coincidence a police officer. Consequently, the interest comes from his personal life and his family relations as much as – more than – it does from the detection.
This novel – number eleven in the series – returns us to familiar ground: Simon Serrailler is in Starly, one of the villages around Lafferton which we visited in the very first book The Various Haunts of Men where Freya Graffham, the series’ first point-of-view protagonist and allegedly Serrailler’s one true love, died at the hands of a serial killer when Susan Hill seemed more focussed on the crime genre and perhaps more brave in her decisions. The discovery of a drug addict, dead from an overdose, in the village led to an operation to try to combat the scourge of County Lines – drug dealers and organised crime spreading out from urban centres into rural communities, grooming children to act as couriers.
In many ways, this felt a little like one of those BBC Public Service Announcements. Does anyone else remember those creepy Charlie Says films from the 1970s?
As a teacher in a rural community, County Lines has been one of the principal child welfare concerns for about five years and probably has been the central concern for policing for so long that Serrailler seems a fair way behind the times and out-of-date. Some of the conversations and briefings within the police felt a little preachy and forced and intrusive – it is a genuinely important topic for all of us as parents, educators and members of communities, but it did take me out of the narrative of the story.
In terms of the plotting and pace, as well, County Lines is a problem with no real solution, no real chance of a resolution, and the narrative meandered a little as a result – but then Hill does often meander in this series and that is part of their charm.
My biggest issue here – and with the series as a whole – is how white and middle-class they are. And there is nothing wrong with that. And it is pretty much inevitable if the main characters of your novel are a doctor and a police officer in a rural community. The representation of the working classes and of non-white characters has always struck me as a little cliched and one-dimensional at best. Here we have Brookie, one of four sons of a working class single dad, who falls into the clutches of Fats, the local dealer receiving packages along County Lines from Manchester; in contrast we have Olivia, daughter of a middle class paralegal secretary in a single mother family. But the depiction of Brookie and his bouncer father, subsisting on food banks – okay, fair enough – and things that he and his father and brothers can steal from skips, did strike me as… problematic.
Neither of these children are entirely typical prospective victims for County Lines: Brookie’s father is well-meaning and caring albeit in a somewhat gruff manner; Olivia’s mother is equally well meaning and much more present, if perhaps her time is taken with her own life, divorce, work and health issues; both are still in school and education; Olivia has a wide and caring social group. And whilst we see how Brookie was groomed, we never hear how Fats got his talons into Olivia. And maybe that was deliberate, encouraging us all to remain vigilant even if we do not fit the stereotype of victims of County Lines; or maybe it showed a lack of understanding on Hill’s behalf. I am not entirely sure which, though always inclined to assume it is a deliberate choice.
Alongside this is the progress of Cat Deerborn, Simon’s sister’s career and family and we have a number of strands: a patient Mr Brown is neglected when he is taken into hospital; her dog, Wookie, goes missing for days and returns injured and on the verge of death; her son Sam suffers his first heartbreak; her husband, Kieran, twists his knee. Some of these worked well enough – the contrast between Mr Brown dying in hospital with no family or friend to visit save for his doctor and Wookie who is fussed over and visited in the vet’s and recovers from his injuries was strangely moving. Some – Kieran’s knee – felt utterly pointless.
In conclusion, whilst raising a real and challenging social issue, as a narrative, this was a pleasant, unchallenging and comfortable read. It is not the best in the series, which seems to be getting weaker as it goes on, but it was decent.
What I Liked
- The novel raises an important issue in County Lines, raising its profile and helping to protect our children.
- The novel is comforting like a soap opera in Simon’s family and his relationship with his sister, father and with Rachel are all continued.
- The novel eschews some of the more extreme events to befall the Serrailler family: his mother’s murder of Simon’s disabled sister and his father’s rape of a friend’s wife, Cat’s first husband’s brain tumour, Simon’s nearly fatal beating and consequent arm amputation and PTSD have been some of the more traumatic events this family have had to survive in the previous 10 books.
- The contrast between the way we treat our elderly and our pets.
- Simon was not a shit to women in this novel – and kind of got a taste of his own medicine from Rachel ghosting him!
What Could Have Been Different
- Representation: a more convincing representation of working classes and non-white characters – do we really need to show that working classes are thieves or kill off our only Chinese character? And there are almost no LGBTQIA characters in this entire series save for the victims in The Benefit of Hindsight and their representation was not without problem.
- The relationship between Simon and Rachel really did not feel convincing.
- Some stronger sense of direction and plot – a feeling that we were heading towards some form of resolution.