Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Two murder mysteries
I seem to have missed the instalment before Susan Hill's A Question of Identity (number 7 in the Serrailler series), but it didn't affect the investigation into the apparently random killings of little old ladies. Susan Hill is not going to let her readers off when it comes to victims, you are going to be sympathising with them before they get bumped off, so you'll feel personally affronted by the crime when it happens. Our hero, Simon Serrailler, may be intelligent and good-looking, but he's a flake when it comes to his personal life, and can be pretty irritating. Of course, we understand why, but it doesn't stop you wanting to shout at him sometimes. Fortunately, he's not so bad at being an uncle, which is just as well because his sister Cat's family is having a difficult time. So, too, is their stepmother Judith, whose marriage to their cold and distant father is beginning to look shaky, although she won't talk about it.
What really makes this series compelling is the Serrailler family. The crime element would be enough on its own to make the books readable -- Hill does them very well, cranking up the reader's anxiety for her victims. Grit is provided by the occasional first person viewpoint of the murderer, reinforcing motive without quite giving away their identity. But the author really excels at portraying the Serrailler men in their family setting: reserved and complicated, even brooding, they guard their own interests at the expense of those around them. This is family saga in the guise of crime novel, and very effective it is too. But it does mean that they are better read on order.
The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards is the sixth Lake District Mystery involving historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett. As in the Serrailler story, a murder has happened which seems to echo others from the past -- but how can they possibly be connected when the killers are dead? The coincidence is enough for Hannah to be drawn into the investigation, where she finds not only Daniel but her own closest friend involved.
I didn't plan in advance to review these two books together, but it occurs to me that they are an interesting pairing. For a start, in The Frozen Shroud Edwards encroaches on Hill's territory with its lakes and mists and obscured identities -- there are moments of high gothic worthy of The Woman in Black. Unlike the Serrailler series, though, The Frozen Shroud could stand on its own as a mystery -- while the previous instalments provide background about the main characters, and some events are dependent on the recent past dealt with in the earlier books, the puzzle of the three, possibly connected, murders is at its core in the way that the Serraillers are at the heart of Hill's series. This may be due in part to the Lake District setting, which emerges powerfully in Edwards' writing in a way that Serrailler's Lafferton fails to. Susan Hill has apparently mentioned both Salisbury and Exeter as models for Lafferton; I've lived in Exeter and, sadly, Lafferton has no resonances of that city for me. Maybe Salisbury is a better fit? I don't know... but honestly, Lafferton doesn't really feel like anywhere very distinct. I've also lived on the edge of the Lakes, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy Martin Edwards' books so much. By fictionalising a real and recognisable place, he brings his obvious feelings for that landscape into play, and grounds his characters within it; part of his work is then done, and he can focus on the plot, while Hill's nebulous Lafferton almost impedes development. When Hannah sits down in her office it's the same one where she sat in the last book, and the book before that -- Simon's office is just a line of print on the page.
Hmm... I think I may be feeling my way towards saying that actually, the strength in Hill's series is the female characters, and that I find Serrailler himself a bit ephemeral. I don't mean to imply that he's unconvincing, but perhaps his portrayal leans too heavily on what the author tells us about him rather than what we discover. Looking back, I realise that my interest always quickens when the women appear -- Cat and Judith are warm and vital and decisive, and seem real. In the Lake District mysteries, Daniel and Hannah, too, have reason to be guarded in their relationships, but if they choose inaction, it is for caution rather than calculation.
The Frozen Shroud and A Question of Identity are both excellent examples of how British crime novels have evolved from Golden Age detective fiction: one is essentially a police procedural while the other riffs on the classic country house mystery, but both are driven by plot and character in equal measure. Both would make excellent last-minute Christmas presents for the connoisseur, or why not start at the beginning with both series?