An enigmatic Chief Inspector, an attractive female Detective Sergeant floored by love, and a cheeky local-boy-made-good Detective Constable investigate an ever-lengthening list of disappearing people in an Aga-saga setting. The Various Haunts of Men, the first of the Simon Serrailler series, is a bracing read.
The pace is varied; the characters are colourful, convincing and carefully portrayed; their web of relationships is intriguing — all set in the cosy atmosphere of a cathedral city. Little wonder that The Daily Telegraph hails Susan Hill as P. D. James’s successor.
But this detective story invites us to play it at its own game, and read it like a detective, pouring over the text as evidence of what the author is up to. Ms Hill’s sleuth, Simon Serrailler, has more than a passing resemblance to P. D. James’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Both are wounded men; both are intensely attractive to women, but keep them at a distance; both are housed in an immaculate penthouse flat, isolated high above the business quarters of a city.
The similarity even made me wonder whether Ms Hill was parodying the genre, doing to P. D. James and her type what Stella Gibbons did to D. H. Lawrence and Mary Webb in Cold Comfort Farm. Yet why would such a distinguished author spend so much effort on a mere parody? I had the detective’s intuition that something else was going on here; that Susan Hill wasn’t using a popular genre for the sales potential, but — among other things — was trying to tell us something.
One clue comes from Ms Hill’s early novel, Strange Meeting. Ever since reading it 30 years ago, I have enjoyed bouncing its plot off the complex war poem by Wilfred Owen from which it draws its title. Ms Hill seems to have a habit of using her titles, and the works from which they are taken, as keys to her novels. Often the locks are multi-levered, and the keys are stiff to turn, but this all adds to the reader’s fun.
The Various Haunts of Men strikes me as such a title. It is taken from The Borough, a long poem from 1810 by the parson-poet George Crabbe:
The various haunts of men
Require the pencil, they defy the pen.
As well as being a detective, Simon Serrailler is a skilled artist, producing immaculate sketches in pencil of the various haunts of men. His day job is to fathom those haunts to catch his quarry. Ms Hill’s day job, against her title’s strictures, is to pen those haunts and the characters that inhabit them.
The Borough is set in Aldeburgh and the surrounding Suffolk countryside. It presents a firework display of characters (including one Peter Grimes) — all set out in detail, using shrewd psychological perceptiveness.
Crabbe used poetry, the principal medium of his day, to pen people’s depths. He contrasted this with artists’ pencil drawings. Often he wrote as a gritty corrective to an over-romanticised view of rural life. His earlier poem, The Village (1783), lampoons (in identical metre) Goldsmith’s idyllic The Deserted Village, in which, allegedly, health and plenty cheered the labouring swain:
Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy Swains,
Because the Muses never knew their pains,
O’ercome by labour and bow’d down by time,
Feel you the barren flattery of a rhyme?
In the 21st century, detective fiction has arguably replaced poetry as the principal medium. But, like Crabbe, Ms Hill uses the prevailing medium to incarnate a host of contemporary issues. Grief, the dysfunctional family, guilt, evil, loneliness, medical ethics, quack doctors and quack clerics, fidelity, dying well, longing, the highest hopes for love and vocation — such themes are addressed gently, as the beautifully drawn characters reveal themselves. It makes the book not just a bracing read, but also a fount of wisdom, and (most importantly) a corrective to conventional mores.
One such convention is to make snide remarks about the Church of England. I bless Susan Hill for resolutely setting her face against this. Instead, she warmly affirms Anglican liturgy and faith as a treasure that enables you not only to cope, but even to flourish. Her careful detail of the funeral in the novel’s closing pages could be set before would-be clerics as an example of the very best practice.
Some of the novel’s characters give away very little — only delicious hints; others reveal their deepest desires. Only the psychopath (an alter Peter Grimes?) speaks in the first person. “The Hill”, the city’s main feature after its cathedral, is the mysterious focus for each character, as well as for life in all its fullness, and death in all its horror. The Hill prompts allusions to Golgotha, as well as other biblical hills, such as Sinai, Carmel, and Tabor.
Or does the Hill simply point us to a very human Hill called Susan, author alike of prosperity and trouble, light and darkness? Throughout her novel, the triumph of her rich mystery is that it calls us to wonder at ours.
The Revd David Wilbourne is Vicar of Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
The Various Haunts of Men is published by Vintage at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 978-0-099-46209-5).
— SOME QUESTIONS
Why does Cat find it helpful to visit the cathedral?
How does the fact that Lafferton is a cathedral city affect the story?
What does “The Tape” reveal about the killer? How does he justify his acts?
What did Debbie gain from Dava? Why were the alternative practitioners so important for her and Karin?
“If you mean [believe] in God, I have to. I’ve seen too much to let me believe otherwise, and I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t” (page 449). In her job as a doctor, how important is Cat’s faith?
Simon Serrailler is seen mainly through the eyes of others. What sort of a person is he?
“Some crime, and especially some murder, is fascinating to explore because it is such a dark, sometimes mysterious, area, involving people whose minds and motives most of us barely understand. Every murder affects far more people than victim and murderer. . . I’m afraid that murder and the effects of murder and other serious crime, are of absorbing interest.”
Susan Hill, in an interview, described the fascination of the crime novel in this way. How can you see her comments borne out in her book?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 May, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Sky Burial by Xinran. It is published by Vintage/Random House at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.29); 978-0-099-46193-7).
Xinran was born in Beijing in 1958. In the 1980s, she became a radio journalist in China, introducing the country’s first agony-aunt broadcast, a phone-in programme. She moved to England in 1997, and taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She has a son from her first marriage, and now lives in London with her second husband. Her previous book, The Good Women of China: Hidden voices, was first published in English in 2002, and tells the stories of ordinary women in China. It was inspired by what people told her when they rang her radio programme.
Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was sent from China to Tibet with the People’s Liberation Army. Two months later, she received notification that he had been lost in action. Refusing to believe that he was dead, she travelled to Tibet herself to find him. It took 30 years of wandering and struggling to survive in Tibet before she discovered what had happened to her husband. The book tells the story of her journey to discover the truth.
Books for the next two months:
June: Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
July: Spiritual Fitness by Graham Tomlin