Posts Tagged ‘Simon Serrailler’

Okay. Please put Lafferton and Bevham in the list of places I don’t want to visit because of their high body count. Midsomer, Stockholm, Lafferton. 

Poor Lafferton. I think this, the fifth book in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series, has the third serial killer in the Cathedral city since the first book. I don’t think Serrailer needs his high profile SIFT work: Lafferton is awash with killers! I know it’s an easy complaint to make of detective fiction series, but there are other crimes than serial killing!

This time round, we witness an underbelly of Lafferton which we haven’t seen before: prostitution. Sympathetically portrayed local prostitutes Abi Righton and Hayley and Marie with their own dreams and problems. For a series which has felt – to me at least – uncomfortably middle class and complacent, this more inclusive tone was a pleasant change. These girls felt real and authentic, balancing the need to put money on the table with family commitments and health problems and the temptation to escape it in cider or cannabis.

Besides them, Hill juxtaposes the new Cathedral Dean, Stephen Webber and his wife Ruth and the canon residentiary Miles Hurley who had arrived with the Webbers. The politics of their changes to Cathedral hymns and services and committees were cloistered and less engaging … but turned out to be vital.

Beyond these changes, not much has altered in Lafferton since the end of the previous book: Simon Serrailler remains canonised at work but retains an inability to form any meaningful with women – and finally someone does the right thing and thumps him for descending on Taransay and hooking up with someone else’s fiancee. I don’t know why no one’s done it before! – and his relationship with his new  step-mother Judith improves . Almost to the point when I was anticipating them  having an affair! Cat continues to be the saintly caring voice in the novels. 

And prostitutes start disappearing and being found dead.

And then other women start to be preyed on.

It is a series which struggles with gender, thinking back. Brides. Sisters. Mothers. Prostitutes. Victims of Serrailler’s womanising. Women get hit hard by Hill. Even those who survive are haunted.

This novel – with a fresh DS – was perhaps the most successful in the series so far. It is still more of a soap opera than police procedural: it is through no dint of police work that the killer is caught – but Hill does like to play with genre conventions. Pure luck rather than Serrailler’s genius solved the case.

They are very comfortable and familiar now. The reading equivalent of a warm woollen jumper and cup of tea. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

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This will be a fairly brief review for two reasons: firstly, I thought I’d already reviewed it and only realised when I tried to link my review of The Vows of Silence to it that I’d not; and secondly, it is very much a continuation of the second novel, The Pure In Heart.

Serrailler is summonsed to Yorkshire to help investigate a lead in the kidnapping and (presumed) murder of David Angus, leading him to effect the arrest of the kidnapper, Edwina Sleightholme, in a surprisingly and refreshingly thrillerish moment fleeing down a Yorkshire cliff face – a moment that was a tad reminiscent of The Woman in Black or of something Hitchcockian.

Hill is a writer who has gone on the record to say that she is less interested in the whodunit than the why-dunnit, so I was anticipating something thoughtful and interesting in the presentation of Sleightholme. And was slightly disappointed. There was no real exploration of the mind of a killer. She is portrayed pretty much as simply evil – a word I have trouble with – who just did because she wanted to. After the genuine emotional horror of The Pure in Heart in which the repercussions of the abduction are seen on the family, the explanation and the presentation of the killer were bland. And maybe that was entirely the point. That the monstrous wears the same banal face as the rest of us.

Other tragedies and crimes took place too and interweaved with new characters: Max Jameson lost his wife Lizzie to Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease – an unusual and odd disease to choose perhaps – and his grief led to increasingly bizarre confrontations including holding the new pastor Jane Fitzroy hostage in her own home. Serrailler eventually talked him round to releasing Fitzroy who quickly became a friend of his sister, Cat Deerbon, and lined up as a love interest for Serrailler. It was a nice breath of fresh air in the Deerbon household where some very tedious arguments about GP working conditions were held ad nauseam.

As often happens with the series, it is slow and gentle and meditative – with the exception of the scene on the Yorkshire cliffs – and I vacillated between enjoying that meditativeness and finding it slightly tedious. I didn’t find the Max Jameson plot line convincing as an exploration in either crime or grief, nor the presentation of Sleightholme. What I did like was the reaction of Sleightholme’s mother to her daughter’s arrest: the shock and denial and obsessive rejection of the truth.

Susan Hill is, without doubt, a fantastic writer.

The Woman In Black is an exquisitely crafted horror; Strange Meeting is exceptional. so I am persevering with these detective novels hoping for … well something.

But I’ve not found it yet.

I really don’t know what it is that’s missing but something is.

The plots are decent enough: this time, the increasingly dangerous town of Lafferton is host to a serial killer gunman. It is terribly easy to mock, but the body count in Lafferton must be on a par with Midsomer or Cabot Cove! This gunman is on top of the serial killer surgeon from book one, Various Haunts of Men, and the paedophile murderer who passed through in books two and three. In fact, the plot felt very familiar and almost a rehash of the first book.

We also continue with the various traumas of the Serrailler family: having lost his love interest and then his disabled sister and then his mother in previous books, Simon Serrailler’s sister, Kat, faces the prospect of her husband being diagnosed with brain cancer in this one. At this rate, there won’t be many Serraillers left in a couple of books’ time! And is there a part of me that thinks that is lazy writing? Just a touch lazy? Not sure where to go with this plot; I’ll give someone cancer or kill off a loved one.

I do like the wider community and returning cast of minor characters. Hill does create a sense of community reacting to the murders with fear, indifference or shock. We were introduced to Helen Creedy and her attempts to start a new relationship and then balance that with her teenage children; an obvious parallel to Simon Serrailer’s difficulty in accepting his widower father’s new relationship with Judith Connolly. Andy Gunton, the reformed car thief, made a cameo return here, as did Karin McCafferty. Karin, who also had cancer which alternative medicine appeared to have cured previously, returns in order to die. And I didn’t like the way Hill dealt with that death: it seemed unnecessarily cruel to turn Karin into an acerbic, bitter and twisted caricature. I’ve read reviews that disliked her story arc because it was thought to promote an anti-traditional medicine message but her death pushed the seesaw too far the other way for me. However, in terms of the narrative, it did its job: it brought Jane Fitzroy back to Lafferton as a potential love interest.

And I think all these spare characters and community – whilst providing some red herrings for the murders – give the books the feel of this soap opera rather than a crime novel. I mean, it’s a balance of course – and having written a police procedural, I’ve included similar personal elements to humanise the detective – but I  feel that Hill hasn’t trod the line quite carefully enough. To be honest, I’d hoped Serrailler would have moved out of Lafferton so he couldn’t constantly pop to his sister’s! He’d been promoted and given a role in a Special Incident Flying Taskforce – which is a clumsy title in order to give the acronym SIFT – between the end of the previous novel, The Risk Of Darkness, and the start of this one. Couldn’t you have slipped in a SIFT case between these two, Ms Hill?

The other thing that really irked was that everything seemed to be conveyed in dialogue which felt a little stilted – and repeated at regular intervals – or in plodding exposition. With these novels, I don’t feel that Hill is following the show-don’t-tell truism. Now, I’m not a stickler for thinking that there is any such thing as a writing rule, but this did feel very pedestrian.

So, overall, not a bad book at all – not bad enough to put me off the rest of the series, unlike The Silkworm, a review of which is coming – but also nothing in it that sparkles from a writer who I know can sparkle.

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I’m genuinely unsure of what to make of this book.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad book; listening to it as an audiobook was a pretty pleasant way to spend my journeys to work.

But it didn’t seem to be what it was packaged as and marketed as: a crime mystery. It felt more like a soap opera in which the main character is a policeman – Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. And terribly middle class.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m middle class.

But Serrailler lives in a pristine flat overlooking the Cathedral, and takes extended breaks to Venice; Cat and Chris Deerbon – his GP sister and brother-in-law – live in their rustic farmhouse; Serrailler’s parents’ garden is landscaped. Tea seems always accompanied by biscuits or cake. They all have larders!

My granny had a larder. But I don’t know anyone else who has ever had one. I’d quite like a larder but do these things even exist anymore?

These people are not the so-called squeezed middle: they are comfortable and content and just a little… smug. A little Midsomer. And that did alienate me a little.

As did the portrayal of Andy Gunton. He’s released from prison in the opening chapters, into the care and home of his sister, Michelle. That home was such a two-dimensional, stereotypical and grotesque – blaring televisions, food dripping in fat, fry-ups and fags. An army of harridan mothers harassing a suspected paedophile. It was all just a little Jeremy Kyle.

To be fair, Gunton was actually a decent character who had made a mistake when he was kid and is trying to go straight on his release. I did feel for him. But it never got to the point where the novel felt like an analysis or exploration or critique of the lack of support given by the probation service. He did fall back into crime but it just sort of… happened. And it didn’t connect to the main plot in any more than a tangential way. It happened at the same time in the same place. Literally, a co-incidence.

But then, was there really a main plot? Was it the abduction of David Angus? Was it the destruction of the Angus family as a result of the abduction? Was it the death of Martha Serrailler, Simon and Cat’s disabled sister? Any of those could be the main plot; all get fairly equal time spent on them. Along with Gunton.

And then a variety of secondary characters drifted in: Karin who appears to have beaten the cancer which riddled her in the first book through the power of organic berries and willpower alone; Diana, Simon’s friend-with-benefits who, after a year’s absence, starts harassing him in an utterly unrealistic way for a fifty-something year-old business woman; or even Cat, whose pregnancy and new son turn her into a domestic goddess.

And then there’s Simon Serrailler himself. In the first book, Various Haunts of Men, Freya Graffham was our primary point of view character and we only really saw Serrailler through her eyes. In this novel, for obvious reasons, Hill brought Serrailler to the forefront … and the mysterious and enigmatic DCI speaks to us directly. And is, at times, quite unpleasant. Particularly towards women: the only genuine relationship he seems capable of are with his sisters.

As I say, it was a decent book. A pleasant comfortable read. Pleasant in the same way that The Archers is pleasant and comfortable. I’m guessing that this novel is introducing a series of threads which will be picked up in future novels – I’m half-a-dozen books behind where Hill’s got to in writing the series. Just take it for what it is; don’t expect social realism.

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!

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