I first read Susan Hill at school – The Woman in Black inevitably and I'm the King of the Castle. Woman stands out as the perfect chiller, and I've subsequently seen the excellent stage adaptation; King was a downright unpleasant exploration of children, read alongside Lord of the Flies and in a similar vein.
Crime felt like a departure for Hill, but it was obvious from the beginning that the Simon Serrailler novels were not typical police procedurals. The fictional cathedral town of Lafferton is entirely real and recognisable, for all it exists as only a few well-described key locations; Hill taps into the platonic English country town to sketch the rest. we don't need detail or maps, because we have all been there in some incarnation.
In contrast, the principal characters – the Serrailler family – are thoroughly considered, and the novels are more about their lives, causes and preoccupations than about the murders that drive the plots. Where Susan Hill excels throughout the series is her nuanced look at humanity's strengths, fatal flaws and other weaknesses through the lens of the family's experience. The series seems designed to make the reader uncomfortable, and the latest is no exception in it's wish to challenge the reader's ethics and sense of justice.
The Betrayal of Trust focuses on a cold case, but while it touches on the challenges such cases involve, it is more interested in memory and the impact of the past on the present. It skates through the family's pain and the challenges of unlocking long-forgotten details, winding through the twists of random facts to uncover the truth.
Beyond the case itself, twinned storylines explore the nightmare of living with (or caring for) dementia and revisit the ethical question posed in earlier installments about assisted suicide and mercy killing.
It is the latter storyline that resonated with me, both in terms of the character's fears of helplessness/dependence and the mundane horror of her trip to Switzerland. No stalking serial killers here (or indeed at all in this novel) nor dramatic climaxes (at all); the low-key and intensely personal confrontations are more literary than crime thriller.
This is of course why I enjoyed it so much – no Scarpetta style lesbian commandos leaping out of helicopters to defuse bombs, just an intense, unhappy DCS interviewing people over cups of tea while two aging ladies struggle with terrible illnesses. Timely topics given recent debates on the competency of the terminally ill to decide their own fate!
This novel sees Serrailler himself becoming less and less sympathetic, increasingly resembling the father he hates. If previous installments explored his attitude to love, this one puts pressure on his most intimate relationships, while introducing a new vein of irrational – almost unexpected- behaviour relating to a new unattainable love interest. It's an intriguing evolution, that suggests the future holds nothing good for our DCS, and that he may not rise to that challenge.
The novel ends abruptly and only partially resolved; it will presumably rely on the next in the sequence to wrap up (or further explore) some of its issues, including the debate on assisted suicide.
Overall, a very satisfying read, but – as ever – not one for your fan of standard crime fare.
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