Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill.


The Overlook Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1-59020-027-8. 438 pages.

Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham has transferred to Lafferton from London. Some might think it a step backwards in her career but Freya is looking to get back to basics, find herself after a disastrous marriage. She loves Lafferton, begins making friends, joins the choir. She is also a good listener and empathic while at the same time a tough and solid police officer. The loyal Detective Constable Nathan Coates thinks of her as his Sarge though she has been in Lafferton only a few weeks and backs her up in investigations.

She is on duty when the manager of a nursing home reports that an employee is missing. She and Coates investigate and find enough to be suspicious of the circumstances. Coates starts working records looking at past disappearances with similarities. Unfortunately they can't make a strong enough case for a full investigation and are told to put it aside. When more people disappear the dreaded phrase "serial killer" comes to the fore in people's minds.

The detectives try to find links among the possible victims who differ in age and sex. They also find themselves looking into the alternative medicine business in a nearby town.

I don't remember what put this book in my mind though I must have read about it on a book review blog and I'm always on the lookout for a new series. The cover tells us that this is a Simon Serrailler mystery. Hill has published other novels but this is her first crime novel.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is labeled a Simon Serrailler mystery but Serrailler is a peripheral character in the police work. In fact, there isn't a lot of police work involved and the conclusion seems almost accidental.

That said, I did enjoy the book but my enjoyment was incidental to the mystery. What Hill does well is build a picture of Lafferton and its people. At one point Freya thinks
Middle England, traditional values. Don't knock it, don't ever knock it, she thought. This is what we have come from, at bottom, this is what we are, and this is absolutely what we are, Nathan and I, are here to cherish and to protect.

This is what Hill is establishing in this story. She is creating the kind of England that Freya wants and needs. A place she can feel grounded.

We don't see much of Serrailler the police officer but we get a lot of Serrailler's relationship to his family (mother, twin sister, father) and learn how Simon is the black sheep for not going into medicine like the others. All of the characters studies, Serrailler's family, the victims, other townspeople, are written in a literary, sympathetic, and often moving style.

I haven't read other books in this series but I'm looking at The Various Haunts of Men as background to the novels that follow.

The following links give both positive and nengative reviews.

Mysteries in Paradise
Jandy's Reading Room
Shelf Love
The Guardian

8 comments:

Bernadette in Australia said...

I have this one sitting on my TBR pile. The main factor in it being on the pile is its size - another brick at 550+ pages - where oh where have all the concise authors gone?

Mack said...

Hi Burnadette. My copy comes in at 438 pages but I didn't find it a plodding read. I must have been in the mood for slower paced character studies what with the thrillers I've been reading lately. I'm going to have a go at The Pure in Heart to see if Serrailler becomes more interesting.

Mack said...

Sorry, I meant to write "Bernadette".

Maxine said...

I mildly enjoyed this book but I found the ending so shocking that I could not pick up another one in the series for about 2 years. Also, the book is slightly clunky and I agree with you about the character of Serrailler, Mack.

However, when I read the second book, some time later, I was totally grabbed, it was excellent. I've read all in the series now (4 I think) and they really are so much better than the first one. However, I think that the character of Simon never really comes into focus and is not really satisfactory. But the regular series characters (eg Simon's family) are very well drawn and developed - his sister the GP is in a sense the main character, certainly the heart - of these books. And also the extraneous characters that appear only in one book (eg the subjects of the investigations) are also superbly drawn. I would definitely recommend persevering with these, not least because they get shorter and easier to read!

Mack said...

Maxine,
I agree with your comment about the clunkyness. I didn't mind so much because Hill was switching genres.

Totally agree about the ending. It was shocking for me as well. I looked at it as Hill showing us that she could be tough and not afraid to do the unpleasant. Didn't like it though.

I wondered about the prominence of Cat in the first book. It is interesting that it carries on in later books.

Dorte H said...

"I have mixed feelings about this book. It is labeled a Simon Serrailler mystery but Serrailler is a peripheral character in the police work. In fact, there isn't a lot of police work involved and the conclusion seems almost accidental."

I heartily agree, and I wonder how realistic it is that Freya works so much on her own. Like Maxine, I didn´t like the ending, but also found promising notes from this author so I am ready to give her a second chance.

maxine said...

"Hill showing us she can be tough". Good catch, Mack. She continues to do this in future books, but I think her ruthless streak is part of what makes them successful. Just not sure that it really worked in this particular (first) title. I look forward to seeing what you, Mack, Bernadette and Dorte make of the later books in the series!

Kerrie said...

Hill got a lot of flack, apparently some more personal than others, about daring to think that she, a literary writer, could also write crime fiction. She took it all very personally. Apparently some came from booksellers who said they now didn't know where to shelve her books!
Anyway since finishing the last Serrailler novel, she has taken her blog down, and more or less seems to be incommunicado.
I found the style very similar to Charles Todd whom I have recently "discovered"