August 6, 2009

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill, is the third in her Simon Serrailler crime series, and I'm afraid it's the last one I'm going to read.

Her first book in the series, The Various Haunts of Men, was brilliant. Here's a link to my review of it last year. I loved how edgy it was, how Hill never coddled the reader, trusting in her audience's intelligence and emotional strength to get them through a rather disturbing and, at times, very sad read. The plot was taut, the characters compelling, the omniscient point of view (which is tricky to pull off) used to good end. I'd never read a mystery/crime novel that gave the reader so much emotional credit. I loved it, and I really looked forward to the next in the series.

That was The Pure in Heart. I didn't find it to be half so strong as The Various Haunts of Men - it wasn't bad, it just wasn't the Holy Cow! good of its predecessor. Here's the link to that review.

So, on to The Risk of Darkness, the third (but not last, as there's another on the way) in the series. By now, Hill's use of the omniscient third-person narrator is starting to wear thin. It's a difficult thing to pull off successfully in a novel-length work. That's why I was so impressed by The Various Haunts of Men. Usually moving to a new point of view in every chapter is exhausting, but it worked in the first Serrailler book, because the narrative arc was so taut. Used well, the technique demands the reader's emotional investment, but it requires a bold rising action and climax to work, two things that The Risk of Darkness lacks.

The Risk of Darkness picks up where The Pure in Heart left off - on the track of another serial killer in idyllic suburban England. Woven into the main plot is Serrailler's disconnect from people in general, his sister's worrisome disconnect from her husband, a young woman dying of variant CJD (mad cow disease), her husband going off the deep end, a young female priest with surprisingly little agency, her mother's victimization at the hand of burglars and a woman who's a jerk to her kid. There are other narrative threads in addition to these, but I think you get the idea.

The omniscient third-person no longer serves its purpose the way it did in The Various Haunts of Men. It pulls the reader in too many directions at once. We cannot invest in Serrailler - we're not with him long enough and, frankly, he's just not that compellingly drawn. We cannot invest in the dying young woman and her mad-with-grief husband - we're no with them long enough. Etc. etc. etc. In fact, rather than making me care about all of these various characters, I found myself doing the opposite. By the time I finished the book, I was glad to be out of the heads of such myopic, fatalistic, pathetic, cauterized and/or vaguely tiresome people.

I do have to say that Hill's approach to crime fiction is non-standard, which is refreshing. But the narrative convention that worked so well in The Various Haunts of Men is stunting the other books in the series. The Risk of Darkness should be edgy, compelling. It's not. It's ultimately tiresome. The omniscient third-person point of view has rendered Hill's characters two-dimensional. Despite a great deal of potential, they have become cookie-cutter people made to type and manipulated, and sadly not worth the investment.

So, the verdict? If you want to read a fantastically strong crime novel with structural integrity, read The Various Haunts of Men. Skip the rest of the Serrailler series - they'll only make you miss the excellence of the first book.


Anonymous said...

OH, sad, that's two for two in the not really enjoying category, huh? Hope your next one is so superly wonderful that it makes up for a couple of not quite theres. I personally think you should check out Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. ;)

Madeleine said...

I might just be getting more critical too - once you know how the sausage is made, you pretty sensitive to not-so-great sausage :-) I will check out Fragile Things though...