Last night I finished the Simon Serrailler crime series by Susan Hill (so far). I got the first one, The Various Haunts of Men, in my stocking so it’s all I’ve read for a solid month. I have absolutely loved them. Loved them. I was so desperate for the second, that when Waterstones’ only copy was battered beyond recognition and nowhere else had it, I was forced to cross the frontier into Kindle territory. (Turns out Kindle is scarily addictive. Or maybe it’s just the books.) I have charged through them like a juggernaut.
Basic premise – and I’m really going to try and avoid the spoilers – Simon Serrailler, our detective hero, lives and works in the South-Western (I think) cathedral town of Lafferton. His family consist of parents, his sister Cat and her husband and children. He is also a semiprofessional artist and has an irresistible pull on the ladies.
Way back in the golden years of my life when I studied literature, I did a module on the detective novel. Reflecting back on the books though my tears last night, I couldn’t help thinking that Serrailler works outside the conventions of the genre.
First, the detective is an outsider. Perhaps foreign, like Poirot, or anti-social, like Wallander. Not Simon Serrailler. His family is a lynch pin of Lafferton life, and whilst he enjoys his solitude he remains part of the community, very much an insider. It is true to say that he does not always form relationships easily, but as the series progresses it becomes clear that this is a form of perfectionism rather than grumpiness. We are allowed to see his family relationships close up, especially with his sister Cat, and although they are not perfect they are not dysfunctional as for example, Wallander’s relationship with his daughter. In fact, his family form a core part of the novel. A large chunk of the series is told from Cat’s point of view, and indeed we’ve taken up residence with her long before we meet Simon properly. The family are an overarching story arc that bridges the books together. Kids grow older, conflicts deepen, issues fester. It forms such an important part that although all the books function as stand-alone stories, it is really worth reading them in order.
Second, there is always a resolution. Broadly speaking, the detective story is comforting; there is something awful that threatens society and the detective, who sits outside society, solves the case and rights the wrongs. This does not always happen. Sometimes a case won’t be resolved until a later novel. Sometimes, the resolution happens in between novels and is only alluded to later. We do not see all that occurs. Crime often goes unpunished. Similarly, Susan Hill is not afraid to shake up her cast list. At least three times there has been a death that has been horrendously unexpected. Literally no-one is safe. It’s like a literary version of Spooks. One never quite knows where one stands. The ground could shift under your feet at any time.
I also think that nowadays there is a tendency to rather pigeon hole our detective dramas. Either they are inner city and gritty, or cosy and elderly. This series straddles the two. Lafferton is a cosy cathedral town, with independent bookshops and a strong community, but strong and modern themes are often tackled: child murder, prostitution, terminal illness and assisted suicide to name a few. There is never an obvious agenda, more a questioning.
I’m not saying that the books are without their flaws. Simon can be elusive and his attitude to people can be irritating, especially women who have formed an emotional attachment. Cat has moments of sanctimoniousness and she does seem to be very good. However, they are very real and there is something unpleasant about characters that never have any flaws.
And now I have no more to read. Until another comes out. Read them before it comes out and I do a second write up. I’ve done well on the spoilers front today, but I can’t promise the same next time. Now I’m off to wallow in some Wodehouse to cheer myself up. Truly, the characters in these books have well and truly hooked themselves into my life over the last month. Now I have finished, I am bereft.