The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill

>> Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TITLE: The Various Haunts of Men
AUTHOR: Susan Hill

COPYRIGHT: 204
PAGES: 549
PUBLISHER: Vintage

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Simon Serrailler series.

REASON FOR READING: Someone mentioned this series as one that might appeal to fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming.

A woman vanishes in the fog up on 'the Hill', an area locally known for its tranquility and peace. The police are not alarmed; people usually disappear for their own reasons. But when a young girl, an old man and even a dog disappear no one can deny that something untoward is happening in this quiet cathedral town. Young policewoman Freya Graffham is assigned to the case, she's new to the job, compassionate, inquisitive, dedicated and needs to know - perhaps too much. She and the enigmatic detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler have the task of unraveling the mystery behind this gruesome sequence of events.
Detective Sargeant Freya Graffham has not been in the small cathedral town of Lafferton long, but she already knows it suits her much better than London did. She's fresh out of a borderline abusive relationship, and Lafferton offers the chance to make new friends and get involved in a community that welcomes her. She's also feeling recharged at work. Not that the drug operations going on at the moment are particularly stimulating, but she soon finds a potential case that intrigues her.

People have started disappearing in an area of town called The Hill, people Freya's instincts tell her are not the type to go missing voluntarily without letting anyone know. At first there's no evidence that they've come to a bad end, though, so in spite of Freya's instincts and the support of her DCI (and new crush) Simon Serrailler, they can't really justify putting resources on the case. We readers, though, know exactly what's going on, through some very creepy scenes narrated from the killer's point of view, and it isn't good...

I'm torn about this book. On one hand, I enjoyed it while I was reading most of it. It's meaty and wonderfully written, concentrating on characters and not rushing their development. At points it's more drama than detective stories, as it wallows in the lives of the people of Lafferton, while the sinister mystery stays in the background. There's a theme running through it as well, of traditional medicine vs. alternative treatments, and I was looking forward to finding out where Hill was going with that.

But then I got to the ending. The ending... well, it sucked. There's no other word for it. First of all, there's no proper climactic moment. Things just sort of peter out and end with a whimper. The revelation of the identity of the killer is a good example. It's veeeery gradual, done through those scenes from the villain's point of view... first the author offers a clue and it could be two or three characters you've met. Then evidence points towards one in particular, and I suspected it was a red herring. Then it becomes clear that it's not a red herring after all, this person is actually the murderer, and that's that. Book over, threads left hanging.

Worse even than that is something Very Bad that happens, something felt like a betrayal on the part of the author and makes me not want to read the rest of the series (even though I was enjoying the book so much that I went to the library to pick up the next two installments before I'd even finished with it). It wasn't what happened per se, it was that it felt as it had been done purely to shock and upset the reader, rather than because the story demanded it. To give Hill the benefit of the doubt, maybe the upcoming books in the series demanded this happen, but still, I intensely disliked it.

The series is clearly now going to continue with a focus on Simon, and I just didn't find him interesting enough in this book to be too excited about that. For a series that's supposed to be the Simon Serrailler series, he's pretty absent from the action here.

MY GRADE: Oh, this is tough. It was a B+ most of the way through, but then that ending was a C-. I'll go for a B- for the book as a whole.

4 comments:

Susan/DC,  21 April 2010 17:43  

When I read your review and your comment about the Bad Thing that happens, I knew immediately what it was, even without reading the book. I can understand exactly why you found this upsetting and reduced the grade. There are times this sort of thing sounds like an author playing with her audience and consciously trying to move the book from genre fiction to Literature rather than having the actions grow organically from the plot and characters. I, too, don't like it.

rosario001,  22 April 2010 08:40  

This is very strange, I got a notice that I had had a comment, but I can't see it on the blog. Testing to see what happens...

rosario001,  22 April 2010 08:42  

Clearly whatever was wrong has been fixed. I'll repost the comment that was lost, from Susan/DC:

"When I read your review and your comment about the Bad Thing that happens, I knew immediately what it was, even without reading the book. I can understand exactly why you found this upsetting and reduced the grade. There are times this sort of thing sounds like an author playing with her audience and consciously trying to move the book from genre fiction to Literature rather than having the actions grow organically from the plot and characters. I, too, don't like it. "

rosario001,  22 April 2010 08:46  

Susan/DC: Looks like I wasn't cryptic enough  :-[  I've now looked at other reviews, and people are raving (positively, I mean) about how this is an author that keeps you on your toes, and you can't trust that she'll even solve the mystery. Maybe my taste is sadly pedestrian, but that just doesn't appeal to me at all...

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