“Susan Hill’s Serrailler mysteries . . . are rich in psychological detail and written in prose as clear and invigorating as a winter’s day in her native Yorkshire.”
About halfway through Susan Hill’s seventh mystery featuring Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler, a character is musing over what books to include in a planned community library. Topping the list of authors is P. D. James, a way for Ms. Hill to acknowledge her contemporary and better known writers. But with carefully crafted plotting, believably realized characters, and atmospheric settings Ms. Hill’s mysteries prove no less compelling.
Ms. Hill is known to most American readers for her classic ghost story The Woman in Black and its numerous adaptations for stage, television, and film, but she is a prolific writer of more than 30 other books meriting their popular reception in her native England. Susan Hill’s Serrailler mysteries, set in the deceptively quaint cathedral town of Lafferton, are rich in psychological detail and written in prose as clear and invigorating as a winter’s day in her native Yorkshire.
“The pavements were scoured by a bitter northeast wind,” she writes of Lafferton’s struggle with a particularly bitter winter in A Question of Identity, “and the sky looked flayed, as if it had lost a skin.”
In this new book in the series, Serrailler must deal with the murders of three elderly women recently installed in Lafferton's newly built collection of cottages for senior citizens.
While her title encapsulates the heart of any murder mystery, Ms. Hill is exploring a deeper meaning: our fragile attachment to personal identity. She adopts a risky strategy for the reader knows from the book’s first pages that the murderer is the same person who stood trial for similar atrocities ten years earlier, but who was acquitted on a legal technicality, spirited away from an angry public by government agents, and given a completely new identity far from the scene of the murders.
But while Ms. Hill has her killer speak directly to us in short bursts interspersed throughout the book we remain, like Serrailler, ignorant of his new name, new life, and new physical appearance.
But unlike Serrailler, we come to understand the murderer’s confusions and near-schizophrenia after ten years of denying who he really is, a device that could have deflated the tension in Ms. Hill’s narrative but serves to keep us involved in Serrailler’s search for a solution.
Although she is carrying on storylines from previous novels and laying the ground for successive ones, Ms. Hill packs into her pages a bit too much narrative unrelated to the investigation, especially for the reader coming late to the series.
While investigating the murders, Serrailler is also coping with his ongoing romance with a woman married to an incapacitated invalid husband, with the husband’s knowledge and acceptance.
His sister Catherine—or Cat, as everyone calls her—has two children suffering teen angst, is facing major changes in her job as the medical director at a local hospice, is dealing with a family friend coping with the trauma caused by a rape occurring in the immediately previous novel to this one, and discovers an apparent case of physical abuse that comes to light near the end of the book.
Serrailler is only peripherally involved in Cat’s turmoil, and Ms. Hill is unable to link them in any satisfying way with the wider issues presented in the larger murder investigation.
But we keep turning the pages nonetheless, as Serrailler learns of the decade-old murders and devises an elaborate ploy to unmask the manufactured identity of the killer now stalking Lafferton’s elderly female population.
“What in God’s name was happening to the quiet town he’d grown up in?” one of Lafferton’s longtime inhabitants wonders. Through seven accomplished novels in this series, Ms. Hill has been telling us all about it.