Just when I thought the Serrailler series might be running out of steam…….
Susan Hill was a fabulous and thoughtful writer of complex and often dark psychology long before she embarked on the crime genre
So when, all those years ago, she joined the ranks of detective novel writers, with an on-going cast of characters, to appear novel by novel, she was never going to abandon her initial writerly strengths and vision, and would instead bring these to her interpretation of the genre.
She begins with a particular person DCI Simon Serrailler, as her detective to follow and over the years (this is outing 8) traces the development not just of Serrailler himself, and relationships he has as a professional, the development of and relationships of individuals within his team, but also looks at Serrailler within his immediate and wider family, and their development. That family of course also being set within a particular time and place ‘Lafferton’ a small cathedral town, somewhere in Southern England.
This gives, as the series wears on, Hill a chance to explore much wider themes, within the lives of her characters, and the culture of the times. The particular ‘crime’ which may be the page turning element of the plot will spread out into the lives of the community at large, and Hill may also investigate further ethical and philosophical themes and sub-themes in each novel, as well as charting how decisions from Central Government may be filtering down onto the ground. These will obviously be around policing and judiciary, and may deal with issues such as economic migrants and how they are viewed, but, as Serrailler’s sister Cat Deerbon is a doctor, the exploration of the changing face of health-care and policies relating to this, are also, increasingly, at the centre.
This might make her sound dry, white-paper minded and pedantic. Anything but – it adds depth, integrity and interest. Continuing readers of the series know all the above, and my advice of course for the first time reader would be that though this (book 8) is absolutely fine, as they all are, to read as a stand-alone first book, if you enjoyed it, go and explore, in order, the rest of the series, from book 1, and work your way through, then reading this again, for even more enjoyment.
Later books in the series have explored strong meta-themes.
In this one, we are back into the territory of sexual crimes – and the wide context is about consent, and who is capable of giving consent; sex without consent is always violation. Centrally, we are in the horrid territory of organised paedophilia, but there is also another story going on around adult rape, and issues of power between the sexes. Hill is never salacious, there are no accounts designed half to titillate as they repel, but she does not hesitate to make the reader understand difficulties, injustices, ambiguities and still bleak challenges within the legal system
She also continues to explore a theme which surfaced in Serrailler 6, around terminal care, and assisted dying, death itself – both un-natural, visited through violence by one on another, and the process itself which comes to all, which in the main we find so difficult to engage with. As a contrast to the difficulties in Serrailler 6, we have here, through Cat Deerbon’s medical practice, an exploration of what proper hospice care could offer, what is being lost through cost-cutting policies, and indeed a humbling (for Deerbon) and revealing series of conversations with a patient in the process of dying (this is no spoiler, it is very obvious, immediately, known to Deerbon, known to the family) This is part of the ‘heart’ of the book, an exploration of communities, both what is supportive about communities – and of course, that flip-side, the community of perversion which the police story is all about.
Initially, I started this book with a sense that maybe the series had run its course, that there was nowhere else to go. I do believe Hill proved me wrong. There are very certain developments, and onwards, not to mention an ending which has beautiful poise.
So yes, I will be interested in Serrailler 9, should Hill want to take us from that poise, onwards.
Her books are not really about guessing plot, we know who, we often can surmise, through the meta-themes, ‘and who else’; we often also know generally why (the litany of human chosen wrongdoing often comes down to simple motives), but the trick, or the point, is to get down to the particular weft and weave of individuals.
I received this as a digital ARC, via the publishers, Random House Vintage, complete with a few strange vanished sentence or clause endings, and the odd typo, which I assume will be corrected by an eagle-eyed and diligent final proof reading. That aside, recommended