A Question of Identity, Susan Hill
This is the seventh of Susan Hill's series of mysteries featuring DCS Simon Serrailler. I'm always glad to see the newest book advertised, knowing that I'll soon be back in the small cathedral city of Lafferton, with its echoes of Salisbury and Exeter, but also of Barchester. The story here, however, opens in Yorkshire in 2002, where Alan Keyes is on trial for the murders of three elderly women. All were killed in their homes, bungalows in a senior-citizen housing area, where he had worked at times on construction. To the shock of those in the courtroom, including the victims' relatives, he is acquitted on all three counts. As word of the verdict spreads rapidly, angry crowds gather outside the court building, and the police are forced to take Keyes into protective custody.
The story then jumps ahead ten years, to Lafferton, where we soon meet Rosemary Poole, who phones her daughter and son-in-law with the news that she has just qualified for a bungalow in a senior-citizen housing area. At that point, I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, which didn't keep me from falling for a couple of Hill's red herrings. I don't want to say too much about the plot, to avoid spoilers. I've commented in previous reviews that Lafferton has had an unusually high number of serial killers in recent years, considering its small size. I was initially a bit disappointed that this book seemed to feature yet another one. But Susan Hill does something very intriguing with the protagonist of this story, which set my concerns at rest.
As much as I enjoy the mysteries in these stories, which Hill always brings to neat and logical conclusions, it is her characters that draw me back each time. Though this book like the others is listed as "A Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler Mystery," he is one of the usual large cast, each with his or her own story, and the narrative shifts constantly among their points of view, allowing us to see events through different eyes. I really admire the way Hill manages this, keeping each story distinct, weaving some in with the main case that Simon is investigating, leaving others to run their own course. It's interesting that though these are mysteries, with the nominal central character a police officer, we don't learn much about his colleagues and subordinates; only a few are even identified by name. In that sense, I don't think of these stories as typical police procedurals - which is not at all a complaint.
Throughout the series, my favorite character has been Simon's sister Cat Deerbon, a doctor like their parents, now widowed and raising her three children. She has often been involved in his cases, and in fact she was almost a victim in the first book in the series. Here her story focuses on her work in the Imogen House hospice, facing serious budget crises, and on her family, where the conflicts between 14-year-old Sam and 12-year-old Hannah are escalating. She and Simon are both worried about their stepmother, Judith, who has become withdrawn and distant. They sense trouble in her marriage to their difficult father Richard, but she will not talk to either of them about it. Simon is involved in a difficult relationship of his own, and when Cat brings it up, he in turn shuts down. I was pleased to see that he is actually still in a relationship, given his history with women, but sorry to see that Hill again pulls the emotional rug out from under him. I did find myself wondering if Cat will ever consider dating again.
Another member of Cat's household (family, really) is Molly, a medical student who helps with the children and the house in exchange for room and board. In the last book, The Betrayal of Trust, she was brutally attacked and almost killed. Here she is still suffering from the aftereffects, struggling with depression and panic attacks, unable to cope with school. As sad as it was to see her suffering, it was refreshing to see a realistic portrayal of the trauma of violence. Too often, in books and television shows, characters who have been kidnapped, held at gunpoint, or who witness a murder seem completely unaffected, moving on to the next plot point, usually with a joke. I was also glad to meet Jocelyn Forbes again, who played such a key part in the last book, and to see where her story has taken her.
I really enjoyed this book. My only quibble is how long we'll have to wait for the next one. Now I'm off to read Jane's review on Fleur Fisher in her world, and Audrey's on books as food, which I had avoided for fear I'd inadvertently plagiarize their always-excellent posts.
I've just noticed that this is my 250th post, which doesn't quite seem possible. Thank you again for reading along.