The Betrayal of Trust, Susan Hill
I had a very long wait for this book, the sixth of Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler novels. Last year I read the five previous books over the course of several months, and I had just posted about the last (The Shadows in the Street) when I saw a new book advertised on her website. I immediately put in an order. This was in July 2011, the book was published in November, and due to some mix-up it arrived in the mail just last week. Since it was on order last year I figure it still counts under the TBR challenge.
And I have to say, this book was worth the wait. It opens with a storm sweeping through Lafferton and the surrounding areas, flooding the streets and bringing down trees. In clearing the storm debris washed down from the Moor, a clean-up crew finds human bones. They are quickly identified as the remains of Harriet Lowther, a school-girl who disappeared sixteen years ago. Then another set of bones are discovered in the same area, another female. Simon is set to working what is a very cold case, though no one has forgotten Harriet.
Susan Hill does two things differently in this book. This is the first in the series that doesn't involve a serial killer. As I mentioned in my review of The Shadows in the Streets, Lafferton has had an unusual number of them. Here Hill has written what I think of as a more traditional mystery with a central case to solve, and she does it brilliantly. We really get to see Simon investigating, and to compare how investigations have changed in the years since Harriet disappeared. For one thing, budgets have been slashed, leaving Simon without a team, forcing him to take on much of the work himself. This means we get to see much more of Simon than in previous books, with more access to his thoughts and feelings. Though these books are referred to as "Simon Serrailler novels," to my mind this is the first book that really focuses on Simon. In addition to the case, the determinedly-single Simon meets someone, and he is more open with this person than with anyone else, even his sister Cat. The relationship faces some major obstacles, including I think Simon's own state of mind and heart, and I am very interested to see where Hill takes it. I do hope it won't be like his last attempt at a relationship, the fate of which we learned from a postcard sent to his sister (a disappointing anti-climax).
Simon and his case are not the only focus of the book. In the first chapter, in addition to Simon, we see Cat at her farmhouse, worrying that her lodger Molly is caught out in the storm. Molly, a medical student, helps care for Cat's three children, in addition to shadowing Cat. We also meet a patient of Cat's, Jocelyn Forbes, an older woman living alone. Jocelyn has developed some troubling symptoms that are later diagnosed as motor neuron disease (better known in the US as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease). Her father died of this at a young age, and she is determined not to suffer its effects as he did. In between chapters on Simon's investigation, and the progress (or not) of his relationship, we follow Jocelyn as she looks into options for assisted suicide, and Cat in her work at the hospice she helps run. We also meet Lenny, a retired teacher, who must find care for her partner Olive, suffering from dementia, who is finally placed in a new care facility near Lafferton. There is a lot going on here as the story shifts around this large cast, with chapters from their different points of view. Hill carries us through it on her characters, which I think is one of her greatest strengths as a writer. She makes these people three-dimensional, and I came to care about them. I had no idea how Jocelyn would connect to Simon's case - though I had a good idea about Lenny - but I wanted to find out what happened next, what decisions she would make. I did miss Cat, my favorite character in the series, who plays less of a role in this one.
I have only one real quibble with this book: the ending. Simon solves the case, but he decides there is no case to answer. "There are no witnesses and it's too long ago for there to be any forensic evidence," he tells one of the perpetrators. This person has just confessed, though, and there is in fact a witness, whose belated evidence cracks the case. The families of the two victims presumably have to be told what happened, what Simon discovered, as do his superiors. In a case that garnered national publicity, it is hard to believe that he could make that decision, that it would even be possible. An amateur detective like Peter Wimsey could - though Peter would never let a murderer go free - but an officer of the law can't, can he? Isn't that the decision of the courts, the Crown Prosecutor?