A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

I have enjoyed Susan Hill’s Simon Serailler crime novels for many reasons.

The quality and the intelligence of the writing. The well drawn characters and relationships. The broad perspective, taking in all of those touched by crime and considering issues that most crime fiction does not. And the willingness to break with the conventions of the genre, leaving loose ends, carrying plot strands between books.

But as the series moved on a few things bothered me.

The structure of the stories became more conventional: crime, detection, solution. The story of the Serailler family drifted dangerously close to soap opera, with rather too many dramatic events in the lives of a small group of people in a short period of time. And sometimes the treatment of the issues felt a little heavy-handed.

The quality was still there and I still liked the latter books, just not as much as the earlier ones.

And then came book six – The Betrayal of Trust – and those failings became too much. Character and play were sacrificed to present issues. Important issues that the author clearly felt strongly about, but that caused her to lose balance.

It was a horrible disappointment, and I wondered if Susan Hill was losing interest in the series, but I wasn’t ready to give up and I picked up the next book, hoping for a return to form.

A Question of IdentityA Question of Identity begins with a brilliantly drawn courtroom scene. The year was 2002 and Alan Frederick Keyes was on trial for the murder of three elderly women. Public feeling was running high, the case seemed open and shut, but doubt was cast on the eye-witness evidence of one witness and Keyes was found not guilty.

He wanted to walk out through the front doors of the court, but he was held back. For his own safety, because he was so notorious and feelings were running so high …

Ten years later, residents were moving into Lafferton’s new housing development. It had been specially designed and  purpose-built for the elderly. A woman was killed. And then another.

Simon Serailler heads the investigation, as residents are distressed, families are troubled, and questions are asked. There is little physical evidence, no eye-witness evidence, and so a painstaking examination of every detail begins.

The deaths have striking  similarities with murders that happened ten years ago, and so the hunt for Alan Frederick Keyes begins. But he has disappeared.  His identity was changed, his ties with his old life severed, for his own protection. And the details will not be disclosed. It’s a fascinating development, and it throws up significant questions about the rights of the individual versus the rights of society.

This is, of course, set against the lives of the Serailler family. Simon’s sister, Cat, is still finding life as a widow hard, coping with the consequences of NHS cuts and fallings out among her growing children. She’s also concerned about, Judith, her step-mother.  The characterisation is pitch perfect, but the plotting still has a little too much of the soap opera about it.

Simon’s relationship with the enigmatic Rachel, who is still tending to her dying husband, continues and there is a hint of change to come. But I found it hard to care because there has been nothing to show how the relationship has progressed from an initial attraction, and Rachel’s character is horribly underwritten. That’s particularly disappointing when the Serailler women were so well drawn.

There was more than enough to hold me, but not enough for me to say this is a complete return to form.

Along the was the storylines left hanging from the last book were nicely tidied up, but some  interesting possibilities were left hanging.

The thoughts of the killer scattered through the book were less well done. Others have done before, and done it better,  and in the end it gave no answers.

The final denouement was dramatic, but rather improbable.

And so I am still wondering if Susan Hill has rather lost interest in this series. I hope not. I don’t want it to go on for ever, but I’d like another book or two, and to finish at a point that is in some way an ending.

So, for now, I’d like to propose a  change. A move for Simon, or something else that would allow the ongoing storylines to be pushed back and the stories of the crimes. the lives affected by crime, and the issues involved to be pulled  forward.

Or maybe to go somewhere else with Cat, whose character and situation is far too interesting to let go … dare I say more interesting than her brother … a different kind of story …

But who knows what the future holds. For now I just have to report that this is better than the book before, back to good but not back to great.

10% Report: Reading The 20th Century

I’m ten years into my century, and so I think it’s time to take stock.

The first ten years were always going to be the easiest, with the risk of picking up a book and finding it dated from a year already covered at it’s lowest.

But that isn’t to say there haven’t been clashes: I ordered Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon from the library only to find that they were both published in 1981.

And there have been a few other occasions when I’ve found a book, gone to add it to my spreadsheet, and found that there was another book already in the space I had intended it to fill.

My first ten books are tilted towards the end of the century. I knew I’d have most difficulty with the later years, and so whenever I’ve seen an oldish book on the library shelves or around the house I’ve picked it up.

The eighties and nineties are shaping up well, but the decade I’m really struggling with is the seventies. Suggestions would be most welcome!

But I’m rambling, so here are the books:

1910 – The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“The City of Beautiful Nonsense is a wonderful love story. It is terribly sentimental, and rather old fashioned but, if you can accept those things with an open heart, it can take you on a wonderful emotional journey.”

 1929 – The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

“An audacious murder, in the middle of a queue of people, all pressing forward, eager to see the final performance of popular musical. The investigation fell to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A detective without the gimmicks, or idiosyncracies of many of his contemporaries, but with a great deal of intelligence and charm, I soon suspected that his creator was a little in love with him … quite understandably …”

1936 – Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“I found that what I had was not a coventional autobiography. That, given a free hand by her publishers, the author had decided to do something a little different. She explains, with both erudition and charm, that, while a conventional biography that plots a straight line through a line can be a wonderful thing, it is sometimes more interesting to do something else. To set down three stakes, to run a rope around then to make a triangle, and then to see what is to be found inside that triangle. And that’s just what she does.”

1960 – The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks

“I was engrossed by Jane’s story. She was real, and I understood her, I cared about what might happen to her, and so it was wonderful to watch her coping with everything that life through at her, with new and old relationships, with her advancing pregnancy.”

 1969 – The Play Room by Olivia Manning

“It looked very promising: a coming of age story set in an English seaside town in the swinging sixties. Laura was fifteen, and she dreamed of leaving home for the bright lights of London. She wanted to leave her dull, lower middle class family behind. Her strict mother, her unassuming father, her irksome younger brother.”

1981 – Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

“‘Still Missing’ was a difficult book to read. It had to be. It was right that I felt terribly unsettled, and it was right that I was forced to consider my own feelings about what was happening. I could do that because the characters, their stories, their relationships, were all perfectly drawn. There were moments when things happened that didn’t feel right. But they were right; answers can’t always be neat and tidy, and politically correct.”

 1983 – The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

“I have read The Woman in Black before, but it was so long ago that I have forgotten the details, save that it was very good and extremely unsettling. And so a re-read, before seeing the film, seemed to be in order. It  is a ghost story built on classic lines: with an isolated house, a bleak landscape, wild weather, ghostly figures, inexplicable events.”

1984 – Mother Love by Domini Taylor

“But maybe Helena wasn’t as fragile as she seemed. Maybe she was disturbed. Maybe she would do anything to serve her own interests … A single, horrible revelation demonstrated that Helena was very dangerous and very clever. I saw that, but nobody else did.”

1994 – Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden

“Pippa Fane was seventeen years old, and the youngest and newest member of the Company of the Midlands Cities Ballet. And she was travelling abroad on tour for the first time. The first engagement of the tour was in Venice. Pippa was captivated. By the city, by the people, by the food … everything! “

1999 – Buried in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho

“Janie Bolitho captured my hometown, as it was back in 1999, absolutely perfectly. And she  created an engaging heroine, who I could quite happily believe is still living just a little further around the bay. Rose is a youngish widow who is gradually picking up the strands of a new life. She has good friends, she earns a living as a photographer, and she has taken up painting – always her first love but not the easiest way to earn a living – again.”

And now I must ponder the lovely book from 1963 that I am going to write about next, and carry on with the intriguing novel from 1946 that I have nearly finished , and …

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

“I did not look about me, though sometimes I glanced up into the great bowl of the night sky and at the constellations scattered there and the sight was calming and comforting to me, things in the heavens seemed to be alright and unchanged. But nothing else was, within me or all around. I knew now that I had entered some hitherto unimagined – indeed unbelieved-in realm of consciousness, that coming to this place had already changed me and that there was no going back.”

I have read The Woman in Black before, but it was so long ago that I have forgotten the details, save that it was very good and extremely unsettling. And so a re-read, before seeing the film, seemed to be in order.

It  is a ghost story built on classic lines: with an isolated house, a bleak landscape, wild weather, ghostly figures, inexplicable events …

But first there is a framing story, which is positively Dickensian, in which a family is telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. The children of the family have a wonderful time, scaring and entertaining each other, but their step-father pulls away. For him their stories are stirring terrible memories.

Because when he was a young, newly qualified solicitor Arthur Kipps was sent to Eel Marsh House, tasked with to going through the papers of client who had died. A simple, routine job, he thinks.  But when he arrives he finds that all of the local villagers are fearful of the house, unwillling to say why, and unwilling to cross the causeway, open only at low tide, that is the only path to the house.

He represents his firm at the funeral service of his firm’s client, and he is unsettled by the distant presence of a young woman shrouded in black.

But he has a job to do, and so he crosses the causeway to the big house. While he is there storms rage.  He hears terrible cries, inexplicable sounds out on the marshes. He worries over one locked door for which there is no key. And then, once more, he sees the woman in black.

Meanwhile family papers are revealing a tragic history. He thinks that he understands. But he doesn’t, and he will pay for that in a shocking conclusion.

The storytelling is pitch perfect, and it was so easy to be drawn in.

But I found that, this time, it was also easy to pull away.

The framing story told me that Arthur had survived, that the things he had experienced were in the past, over and done. And the story itself is a little stretched, and maybe too firmly rooted in tradition, with the only real shock coming at the very end.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by reading so  wonderful ghost stories over the years. Virago anthologies, Oxford anthologies …

Maybe this will work better on screen than on the printed page.

But for now all that I can say is that The Woman in Black is nicely done, but no more than that.

Bookish Thoughts as the Year Ends

Try as I might I can’t distill a year of wonderful reading into lists.

But I can answer a few questions from The Perpetual Page Turner

Best Book of 2011

I have read some wonderful books this year, but if I have to single out just one, the book closest to my heart is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Worst Book of 2011

Oh dear. It has to be What They do in the Dark by Amanda Coe. It started beautifully, it had so much potential, but good ideas were ruined as things were taken much, much too far.

Most Disappointing Book of 2011

I have loved Susan Hill‘s crime novels in the past but I was disappointed in her most recent, The Betrayal of Trust. The plot and the characters came a very poor second to themes that the author clearly had strong feelings about but pushed much too hard for me.

Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2011

The idea of a novel in verse scared me, but Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles was a Persephone Book, it had appeared in a library sale, and so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. And I found a troubling story quite brilliantly told.

Book Recommended Most in 2011

I found Ten Days of Christmas by Gladys Bronwyn Stern in a bargain bin. It had no dust jacket, no synopsis, and so I did a few searches to try to find out more, but I couldn’t find anyone who had written about it. So I read, I wrote , and I’ve noticed a good few people have ordered copies and a couple more reviews have appeared. I really am thrilled.

Best Series You Discovered in 2011

I read and loved The Return of Captain John Emmett last year, and so I was eager to read Elizabeth Speller‘s second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I was surprised, and delighted to meet Lawrence Bartram again, to see his story progress, and to notice some very interesting hints about where his story might go next.

Favourite New Author in 2011

I’ve found a few new authors I want to keep tabs on, but if I’m going to pick out one I think it must be Rachel Hore. I read The Gathering Storm, I fell in love with her writing, and now I have an intriguing backlist to explore.

Most Hilarious Read in 2011

I am not a great lover of comic writing, but there’s something about Molly Keane, Time After Time was dark, sad, grotesque, and yet very, very funny.

Most Thrilling, Unputdownable Book of 2011

I was intrigued and confounded by True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. I just couldn’t work out who this woman was, why she did the things she did.

Book Most Anticipated in 2011

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple was surely the most eagerly waited reissue of 2011. And it more than lived up to some very high expectations.

Favourite Cover of a Book in 2011

Most Memorable Character in 2011

Oh, Miss Ranskill! I shall never forget you, and I shall never forget The Carpenter. Barbara Euphan Todd told your story so well in Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Most Beautifully Written Book in 2011

That would be a book I’m still reading. Vanessa Gebbie’s novel, The Coward’s Tale, uses words – their meanings, their sounds, their rhythms – quite brilliantly. I even find myself reading with a Welsh accent …

Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2011

I was intrigued from the first moment I saw No Surrender by Constance Maud. A suffragette novel! I realised how little I really knew, and this book has inspired me to find out more – The Virago Book of Suffragettes is now sitting on the bedside table.

Book You Can’t Believe You Waited until 2011 to Read

I can remember seeing Mary Stewart‘s books on the library shelves years ago, when I moved up from the junior to the adult library, but it wasn’t until this year that I read one. It was Thunder on the Right, and I loved it …

… a wonderful year of reading … and now it’s time to start another …


When new books by much admired authors disappoint …

… it is hard to know what to write. Or indeed whether to write.

I’d hate to deter anyone from reading the works of an author whose other work I have appreciated … and maybe sometimes I come to a book at the wrong time, or with the wrong expectations …

ButI think I have to set out my feelings, remembering that there was enough in these books for me to read them to the end.

Two recent crime novels.


The first is The Quarry by Johan Theorin. It’s the third book in a loosely linked quartet of crime novels, one for each season, set on the Swedish island of Öland. I was very impressed by the first two books in the series, and so I didn’t hesitate to pick this one up.

As spring begins retired Gerlof Davidsson has decides to leave the senior  home where he has been living and return to his own cottage. It is in a quiet spot, but he has a few neighbours. There’s Per Mörner, recently divorced and struggling to cope with a withdrawn son and a sickly daughter. And there’s Vendela Larsson, who has persuaded her husband, Max, to buy a luxury home close to her childhood home on the island. The plot will link them all.

Per is estranged from his father, Gerry, a man with a very dubious past, but he takes him in after he suffers a stroke and then his house is destroyed by fire. A man was killed in the fire. And Gerry is agitated. Per begins to investigate.

Gerlof offers him counsel, but he is distracted. Because he is reading his late wife’s diaries, and what he learns will have consequences for Per and for Vendela.

The plot is cleverly constructed, the characterisation is excellent, and the sense of place is wonderful.

But it felt contrived, particularly the way in which Vendela was drawn into the story. No one element was wrong, but the elements didn’t work together.

A disappointment, but the quality of the first two books, and the things that did work in this one, are more than enough to make sure I will pick up the final book in the quartet when it arrives.


The second is The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill, the sixth book in her Simon Serrailler detective series.

I have loved this series for so many reasons. The quality of the writing. The perfectly drawn, complex characters and relationships. The broad view of crime and all those it touches. Consideration of serious issues. And the willingness to break the conventions of crime fiction, leaving loose ends, carrying plot strands between books.

All of that is still present. The body of a girl missing for many years and another, unidentified body, are found. The lives of the Serailler family continue to evolve. A woman considers ending her life when she is diagnosed with a progressive, debilitating disease. And another woman struggles to cope with her partner’s slide into dementia. The plot links them all.

But the plot is unbalanced. The crime story felt secondary to the consideration of ageing, illness and how a life should end. Important issues but, for me, having to consider motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease all in one piece of crime fiction was too much.

The ending of the crime story was much too neat, and much too rushed, ongoing storylines were advanced too little, and far too many threads were left hanging.

I can but hope that there will be another book to answer my questions, and that book will get the balance right.


I’ll mention no names, but crime fiction series can go wrong. Some run out of ideas and become predictable. Some paint themselves into corners. Some just go over the top …

Actually I will mention names: Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell …

But I think, I hope, these two have only wobbled.

Time will tell …

Library Loot

I am finally managing to bring down the size of my library pile. Just four books in two weeks!

And here they are:

Inside The Whale by Jennie Rooney

“Stephanie Sandford, recently widowed, must tell her family the truth. But the past is indistinct and it’s complicated. First, there was her mum, who developed an anxious streak after marrying the wrong Reg. And then there was the young man from the dairy who gave Stevie swimming lessons before he broke her heart. War came, and four years chopping root vegetables in the canteen of the Sun Pat peanut factory on the Old Kent Road. Then the wet London nights, with the Doodle Bugs slipping through the sky like huge silvery fish. It’s not until she’s under an umbrella with Jonathan – dark hair and seaweed eyes – that Stevie finally starts to sense safety. Meanwhile, Michael Royston’s memories are squashed into a shoebox (along with Queen Matilda’s Dicken Medal for bravery) ready for his move into hospital. Years ago, he trained military carrier pigeons for the Royal Corps of Signals in Cairo so it’s ironic that his own homecoming has taken a lifetime. Michael has never been good at putting things into words; he’s more comfortable with the click of Morse code. But Anna, a young healthcare assistant, has the patience – and rare tenderness – to eke out his story. And so he begins.”

The synopsis may seem a touch muddled, but I’ve started reading and so far it is quite wonderful.

The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill

“Simon Serrailler has just wrapped up a particularly exhausting and difficult case for SIFT – Special Incident Flying Taskforce – and is on a sabbatical on a far flung Scottish island when he is called back to Lafferton by the Chief Constable. Two local prostitutes have gone missing and are subsequently found strangled. By the time he gets back, another girl has disappeared. Is this a vendetta against prostitutes by someone with a warped mind? Or a series of killings by an angry punter? But then one of the Cathedral wives goes missing, followed by another young married woman, on her way to work. Serailler follows lead after lead, all of which become dead-ends. The fear is that more women will be killed, and that the murderer is right under their noses; meanwhile the public grow more angry and afraid. It is only through a piece of luck, a chance meeting and a life put in grave danger that he finally gets a result…”

I arrived in the library just as the new crime novels were being put out. There were a few I was interested in, but I was restrained and picked up just this one.

Sandy: The True Story of a Boy and His Friends Growing Up in Cornwall in the Late 1800s by C Richard Foye

“Sandy is the true story of a boy and his friends growing up in Cornwall in the late 1800s. It’s the story of a ‘lost world’ in two senses — the lost world of childhood as recalled from an adult perspective, and the lost world of late Victorian England as lived through in a rural community, when the ordinary family depended for its livelihood on long hours of difficult manual labour. The Sandy whose early life this book chronicles grew up in West Cornwall’s countryside at the end of the 1800s. Initially living in Falmouth, where he was born, Sandy moves when his father inherits a derelict house and farm from his Uncle Benjamin. Here we come to see the restoration process that the whole family is involved in once this move had been made. The reader can enjoy an array of local colour in the antics and adventures Sandy embarks on with the new friends he makes, from Polwheveral Creek to Porth Navas to the woodlands north of Constantine. Then there are larger-than-life characters, such as the sailors who wouldn’t feel out of place in Treasure Island, with facial scars and eye-patches and mutilated limbs. Enjoy such new-fangled inventions and machinery as gas lighting for the home and a horse-drawn grass-cutter, and share in the wonder their arrival must have excited among the common people. Become acquainted too with such local traditions as the Helston flora dance, and delicacies like star-gazy pie. Childhood however runs its natural course, and once on the brink of manhood Sandy cannot resist his passion for the sea, of which his father sternly disapproves. The only option Sandy has is to run away from home, which he does, joining the Royal Navy in Plymouth. He returns briefly after serving for ten years, to find out what has happened to his friends and family. Then that chapter too closes, and with it a whole past world of English rural life.”

Hopefully this will be perfect Cornish comfort reading!

Florence & Giles by John Harding

“In a remote and crumbling New England mansion, 12-year-old orphan Florence is neglected by her guardian uncle and banned from reading. Left to her own devices she devours books in secret and talks to herself – and narrates this, her story – in a unique language of her own invention. By night, she sleepwalks the corridors like one of the old house’s many ghosts and is troubled by a recurrent dream in which a mysterious woman appears to threaten her younger brother Giles. Sometimes Florence doesn’t sleepwalk at all, but simply pretends to so she can roam at will and search the house for clues to her own baffling past. After the sudden violent death of the children’s first governess, a second teacher, Miss Taylor, arrives, and immediately strange phenomena begin to occur. Florence becomes convinced that the new governess is a vengeful and malevolent spirit who means to do Giles harm. Against this powerful supernatural enemy, and without any adult to whom she can turn for help, Florence must use all her intelligence and ingenuity to both protect her little brother and preserve her private world.”

The influences are fairly obvious, but  it does look good and a gothic novel does appeal right now.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.