Saturday, 22 December 2007
The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
Although this is the second of Susan Hill's novels about Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, it is the first I have read. It won't be the last, though. Set in an imaginary cathedral town, it follows Serrailler through a difficult patch: the death, previously, of someone he'd cared about, the illness of his disabled sister, and a distressing case. A 9-year-old boy is missing from home, an event which upsets the whole town. There are no leads, and the police must cope with increasingly distraught parents and, inevitably, a hostile press.
What I liked about this book is that it's not really a detective story - it's a novel in which the protagonist happens to be a detective. Actual crime detecting is a relatively small part of the story, and I finished The Pure in Heart wanting to know much more about Serrailler's relationship with his family. His parents marriage is a - convincing - combination of chilly and close; was it always like that? Was it, even in part, the result of having a severely disabled child? One of the pleasures of writing a series must be that you don't have to reveal everything at once. As long as a character is rounded enough to be convincing, shaping that person can take place at a much more natural pace, and the author has leisure to say of Serrailer's sister Cat that she didn't feel she knew her brother. And while we are party to some of Simon's thoughts, it can be made clear that he doesn't necessarily know himself why he behaves in certain ways.
I found the portrait of the mother of the missing child rang particularly true, notably in the ways in which her attempts to cope with her pain actually manage to exacerbate it. Early on, she runs herself a hot bath and then adds cold water to it because she cannot be allowed to enjoy anything while her son is lost. Her husband, on the other hand, cannot even begin to deal with his grief and withdraws from his family to bury himself in work, so we only see him through others' eyes. One of the tragedies of this family is that, although they had seemed content on the surface, they quickly prove to have no resources for coping with disaster. I remember complaining when discussing one of the Midsomer books that the juxtaposition of the detectives' families with the victim family offered no real insight into either; here there is nothing extraneous about the separate threads.
A satisfying book, therefore: I liked the characters, and the story was absorbing. I see from Susan Hill's blog that she has just completed a fourth book in the series. I look forward to reading it and the other two.