July 15, 2008

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

I really enjoy mysteries and crime novels, though I tend to gravitate more towards Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers than the grittier, 21st century sort. Given this, I was kind of surprised to find myself up at 2am, totally eaten by The Various Haunts of Men. 

This is Susan Hill's first book in the Simon Serrailler series, which feels much more like a psychological crime novel than a traditional murder cozy, though there are plenty of murders to go around. Here's a very brief, spoiler-free (hence the brevity) synopsis:

Detective Constable Freya Graffham transfers to the cathedral town of Lafferton from London's Met after finalizing her divorce. She fits in well with the town and the force, and becomes fascinated by her superior, the rather enigmatic CDI Simon Serrailler. When a middle-aged spinster goes missing, Freya finds herself unable to let it go. When more townspeople and even a dog disappear on 'The Hill', Freya's hunch is verified and a serious police search begins, drawing her closer to Serrailler and the dark, startling ending of the book. 

The strength of Hill's writing is in her structure and her subtly. Through the use of multiple points of view, she allows the reader to understand and become attached to many of the characters, even (and perhaps especially) the characters who will later disappear. She alternates the multiple third person POV with brief chapters written in the first person, allowing us to briefly occupy the perpetrator's mind. In this way, Hill slowly reveals the criminal's identity and the full scope of his/hers (see, no spoilers) psychosis. 

The other thing I really liked about The Various Haunts of Men is the ending. Obviously, I'm not going to say much about it, except that Hill is a very unsentimental writer - she allows things to happen to her characters as things might happen to people in real life. Just because you love someone, does not mean you will be loved back. Just because you're turning you're life around, does not mean it cannot end. Hill avoids the temptation to neatly tie up the ends and in doing so she wrote a crime novel that feels a great deal like reality, only with more corpses than most of us will probably ever see, which is pretty much fine by me.

Incidentally, this all started when a friend sent me a LibraryThing recommendation for Susan Hill's novel, The Woman in Black - a ghost story in the Dickens mold. I read The Various Haunts of Men while waiting for Link+ to deliver it. There are also three more books in the Serrailler series (the newest will release in February), so a small swath of Susan Hill posts are probably going to follow....

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