Publisher: Chatto and Windus
Publication date: 3rd June 2004 (hardback)
I recently agreed to review the second in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series for a feature in New Books Magazine, with a really tight deadline, thinking that I’d read the first book already. It turns out that this was completely imagined and the 560 pages of The Various Haunts of Men were still to be tackled. I have to admit that I was a little daunted at the prospect – I’ve read so many crime novels recently that the idea of reading two more in a fortnight wasn’t exactly appealing. However, I prefer to read series in order so I picked up Simon Serrailler’s first outing and got on with it.
As so often happens, I’m really pleased that I did. Much like Ruth Rendell, who is quoted on the front cover, I loved this book. I should have known that it would be excellent as the other two books by Hill that I’ve read have both been brilliant. The Woman in Black was a novel thrust upon me when I was about 12 as a set text at school and I liked it then; I’ve read it since and picked up so much more atmosphere and detail than the first time around. Similarly, Strange Meeting was a text on a World War I module for my BA and, despite it being one of several novels that we had to read, it was the one which I’ve since re-read for pleasure. Hill’s writing is always a joy to read and often belies the horror of her subject matter.
Set in the fictional cathedral town of Lafferton, The Various Haunts of Men is ostensibly about the disappearence of a middle-aged woman who vanishes one foggy evening. There are few leads as Angela, the missing woman, lived alone and kept very much to herself. Once these leads dry up, the case is downgraded in priority and only Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham thinks that there is more to the case than meets the eye. She is proved right when there are more disappearences, although the missing persons have nothing to connect them other than vanishing whilst up on The Hill. D.S. Graffham, along with her Detective Constable, Nathan Coates, is determined to find out whether Lafferton has its first serial killer.
I’ve read reviews of this novel which criticise it for the slow pacing and, whilst I recognise that this isn’t the most rip-roaring of novels, I do think that those reviewers are missing the joy of Hill’s writing and plotting. Although the crime aspect kept me interested, the real point of the seems to be the way that the reader gets to know the town and its inhabitants, many of whom will be featured throughout the series.
There’s Angela Randell, who lives alone but is in love with a mystery man for whom she buys expensive and, potentially, inappropriate gifts; Debbie Parker, a depressed young woman who seeks answers in the alternative therapies on offer in nearby Starly, and her flatmate Sandy who worries about her friend being taken in by charletans. Karin McCafferty, a professional gardener, discovers she has cancer but refuses her doctor’s advice and also turns to alternative medicine, and Dr. Cat Deerbon who has to find the line between being Karin’s doctor and her supportive friend, as well as dealing with tensions surrounding the increase in Cat’s mother Muriel, herself a retired doctor, is heavily involved in local activities and it is through the choir that she meets Freya Graffham, recently moved from London after a messy divorce. Freya discovers that she already knows Muriel’s son, Simon Serrailler – he’s her D.C.I., and she is also, inconveniently, in love with him. All of these characters are vividly brought to life and, although some are featured more heavily than others, none feel redundant or superfluous.
It’s the strength of Hill’s characterisation and the sense of community that it invokes which makes the crimes in the novel so affecting. And they are emotional, from the disappearances of characters that the reader has come to care about to the shock ending. Ah, that ending. If anyone remembers the first ever episode of Spooks they might know what I mean when I say that the denouement of this novel was shocking. I think it’s fair to say that I was a wreck by the end of the novel, and Mr. Mouse had serious reservations about me reading any more of the series. To be fair, even thinking about Bambi makes me teary, so I’m not the best measure of the emotional power of anything, but I’d definitely advise you to have tissues to hand when approaching the ending.
I don’t really have anything bad to say about The Various Haunts of Men, which is slightly dull – sorry! As mentioned in my post about my favourite books of the first 6 months of 2012, I promised myself that I’d finishing writing this review before reading The Risk of Darkness, the third in the series. That didn’t happen, mainly because I just couldn’t not read it once it was on the bookcase. Bearing in mind the size of my TBR pile, this says a lot about this series. One word of warning – I would strongly recommend reading these in the correct order as I think the emotional heft would be lessened otherwise.