Dark but not Stygian!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 30 March 2017
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
(Simon Serrailler # 1)
You expect crime novels to be a bit dark. It is, after all, intrinsic to the subject matter: crime is a nasty business. But what struck me about ‘The Various Haunts of Men’ is how positive, even uplifting some parts of it were. Especially compared with some crime writers, who’s work is unrelentingly gritty – dark grey shading to black – Susan Hill brings in a lot of light and colour and positive thinking.
The source of this is the characters. Although this is the first of the ‘Simon Serrailler’ series, the enigmatic DCI is more of a background figure in most of the book, and we learn more of him through conversations about him than we do directly. But other characters, even relatively minor ones, are vivid and fully developed – and a lot of them show a surprisingly positive outlook.
One of my favourites in this regard was ‘Cat’ Deerbon, Simon Serrailler’s sister and a local GP, who’s commitment to her patients and deep Christian faith make her an uplifting presence throughout the book. Other characters are also shown with as much light in them as darkness, as much hope as despair. They feel like real people who you can both sympathise with and laugh with.
Of course, that also means that when something bad does happen to them, you feel it all the more strongly.
Hill’s talent for description extends to the setting as well as the characters. Without the necessity for long passages heavy with detail, she evokes a strong sense of place in the various scenes – the Cathederal, the Hill with its standing stones, and so on. These come together to make the cathedral town of Lafferton a very authentic place.
She is somewhat weaker on plotting, though that’s not an obvious issue. The central premise – of several people (and a dog – who is in fact a fish in my opinion: i.e. a red herring!) going missing on The Hill, without any other apparent connection between them is intriguing, and promises a complex and devious story. But in fact, the solution is relatively straightforward once the facts are revealed. Clever, satisfying and chilling – but without the multiple twists and turns that you might have expected from such starting point.
Instead, the story follows police procedure and the decisions of individual people. It is very much character driven throughout, and from a technical point of view it is perhaps Hill’s ability to weave together so many different personalities, whilst keeping each one distinct, that is the most impressive aspect of her writing.
Another interesting facet was the slight tinge of the supernatural which hangs round the edges of the narrative. Susan Hill is, of course, known for her ghost stories and so a bit of supernatural might be expected, but there’s no hint of ghosts. It’s down to earth and matter of fact – and yet, in the same way that a hint of ‘something other’ can often touch our ‘down to earth and matter of fact’ lives, Hill brings into her story the feeling of things beyond normal experience impinging on our world. We see it in the various practitioners of alternative medicine – some quite legitimate, some merely quacks, some less easy to explain. We get a touch of it in the Cathedral as well, with it’s lingering sense of the numinous. No more is made of it than that, but it forms part of the character’s lives and therefore part of the story.
I only had one real problem with ‘The Various Haunts of Men’, and that revolves round a technical point of police procedure which I doubt if many people will have noticed or care about. However, to allow my pedantic side free reign for a moment…
When the Police go and check Angela Randall’s house (Chapter 5) they would presumably have had to force entry. This can be done by several means, all of them messy to a greater or lesser extent. But there’s no mention of this at all. Indeed, when Freya, the DS investigating, visits the house, she ‘closed the door softly behind her’ - which might have been difficult if, for example, it had been taken off it’s hinges by a copper making an entrance! Of course, this isn’t important to the plot, but with the attention to detail otherwise shown, it stood out to me.
Pedantic moment over, and overall this was a deeply absorbing story, both deeper in content and lighter in tone than many crime novels. There were more loose ends left than I liked, but I make allowances for the fact that this is the first in a series, and there may well be opportunities in those loose ends for further plots or sub-plots to be developed. I certainly hope to read more and find out.
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