I’ve been reading Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels for many years now. I read the very first one, The Various Haunts of Men, when it first came out and every one since. In this 11th outing for the detective he’s investigating a death above a Chinese Medicine shop in the distinctly hippy village of Starly. A strange anomaly in the area, Starly seems to attract shop owners selling incense, tarot cards, and new age paraphernalia. The young man in front of Simon has been dead a few hours and has a needle in the vein of his arm. It seems to be a run of the mill overdose – sadly all too common now that county lines operators had been plying their trade locally for a while. County lines drug dealing bothers Simon and he wants to eradicate it, but catching the person distributing in the village won’t yield any further results. The local man rarely knows the men above him, he just picks up a packet from a given location and gets his on foot distributors to do the next stage. Sadly, those at the bottom of the ladder are often children coerced or groomed into helping out, whether or not they even know what’s in the package they’re carrying. However there’s something about this overdose that doesn’t add up and it is going eat away at Simon until he solves the puzzle.
There are always family issues in Hill’s novels because they are as much about the family as they are the case. I’ve still after all these years, not got to grips with Simon as a character. I know him, but don’t necessarily understand him. I find it easier to understand his sister Cat, and bonded with the character when she lost her husband at a similar time to me. Here Hill concentrates on Cat’s youngest son Sam, who has unexpectedly turned up at home from university. Cat has suspected there have been some issues in his long relationship with girlfriend Rosie, but hasn’t wanted to interfere. Sam was fairly ambivalent about university anyway, so Cat isn’t too surprised when he says he doesn’t want to carry on. He quickly gets his old job back, portering at the hospital, until he decides on something more permanent. Rosie is training to be a doctor and they’re now likely to pass each other every day, but when he first sees her outside the hospital she’s with another man – was this just a hug after a long shift or was there more to it? Other family threads felt a little odd. Kieron is both Cat’s second husband and Simon’s boss, but there’s a strangely detached feeling to his presence. At the farmhouse he disappears into his study to watch TV without interruption, while Simon and Cat share a drink and talk. He doesn’t interact much with the children, particularly Sam. Any interactions he and Simon have at work, are left at work so they don’t chat over old cases or just the difficulties of policing the area. It’s as if he’s absent in his own life and if he walked away he would leave no impression behind.
The chapters that focus on the family or the police station seem to recede into the background, while the intervening chapters are full of life. A young lad called Brookie is the subject of one thread. One of four boys, brought up by Dad, their house is depicted as chaotic and noisy, but seems to be more demonstrative and affectionate than the Serrailler family. Brookie only has a plastic bag for his school books and is the subject of bullying by other kids. One day, as he’s gathering his stuff after it being emptied into a puddle, a stranger appears and starts to help him. They chat and Brookie never expects to see him again, but he drops by the following week with a new rucksack for him. Is this just a Good Samaritan or is something more sinister going on? With Dad working nights as door security on a nightclub the boys have plenty of time on their own and could be easy prey. We also meet a young girl called Olivia, from a more affluent background but her parents have recently divorced. Her father had an affair with a much younger woman and while Olivia’s mum knows that he’s become a dad again in his fifties, she hasn’t told her daughter. So, when Olivia rings her dad for some help, it is a huge shock to be told she has twin half-brothers screaming in the background. Now is not a good time to ask for help. Once a month, a man called Fats gets her to deposit an envelope to a derelict farm while pretending to be out for a run. She hates what she’s doing and it’s only shame and fear of her family finding out that keeps her going. Scared and emotionally manipulated, Olivia is looking for a way out. If her Dad won’t help she’s running out of options.
You always know you are in the hands of a great storyteller here, as it always feels as if the threads come together effortlessly. Of course that takes skill and hard work, but Hill makes it look easy. This is the first time in a while that I’ve felt a restlessness in Serrailler. Usually his large modern flat soothes him, it has the proximity to the cathedral so he also has the incredible views of its architecture. His job can be all encompassing, barely leaving room for other thoughts, never mind people. For some reason he finds himself viewing a large cottage in need of renovating, deep in the countryside. With this case he can feel his patch changing, the tendrils of drugs creeping into smaller towns with criminals who are willing to kill to keep their line of supply running. His behaviour with women has always kept me from truly liking him; he’s a ‘commitmentphobe’ who either never tells the object of his affections what he feels, or who carries on dating someone he has no future with for far too long. It may be something to do with his father’s lack of emotion or the way he has treated women in the past; his second wife had to ask Cat for help when Richard had physically attacked her. However, as a face from the past crosses his path, I did wonder whether this restlessness might mean he’s ready for change? This had that strangely comforting feeling that comes when you know your characters well and can settle into the story. It’s often the same with crime series, that even if your characters are in the midst of a bloody murder investigation, you feel happy to be amongst friends again.
Susan Hill‘s novels and short stories have won the Whitbread Book, Somerset Maugham, and John Llewellyn Rhys awards, received the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year, and have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The play adapted from her famous ghost novel, The Woman in Black, has been running in the West End since 1989. The eleven books in her Simon Serrailer series are all available from Overlook.