This is the first in a mystery series by U.K. author Susan Hill involving Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler and set in fictional Lafferton, a Cathedral city in the South of England.
In The Various Haunts of Men, Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham has come to work in Lafferton to escape the stress of life in London. She takes an immediate liking to her DCI Serrailler; more than that, she finds herself subject to a coup de foudre, or the thunderbolt of love at first sight.
In Lafferton, a number of people have gone missing, and DS Graffham has a bad feeling about it. She relies on her instincts quite a bit, and doesn’t think these people – particularly the women – just decided to disappear.
Simultaneously, the police are also investigating an influx of alternative healers in nearby Starly. Simon’s family is involved in the investigation since most of them are doctors, and concerned about possible abuse of patients. Some of the missing had been to Starly – could there be any connection?
Discussion: This was a most interesting mystery because, while keeping up a very high level of apprehension over the disappearances, the author simultaneously interjects intelligent discussions on the pros and cons of alternative medical treatments. I was surprised by the objective presentation of both sides of the argument. The medical theme also allows the author to muse on pain, disease, death, loneliness, and acceptance, with a sophisticated level of empathetic insight.
I was also surprised by the thoughtful and believable characterizations, and the startling courage of the author in crafting the outcome of this book. Unlike so many books in which the characters escape from improbable events – so that you want to throw up your hands in disgust – this author resists the attachment she and her audience might be feeling for her characters in favor of realism.
I particularly liked the author’s ability to map experience and emotions:
“These are the times you remember until you die, these ordinary, unplanned, astonishing, joyful things, these spur-of-the-moment, unexpected things. You remember every word, every gesture, the colour of the tablecloths in the restaurant and the smell of the liquid soap in the cloakroom, so that for the rest of your life, when you smell it again, you are there and you are the person you were, on that day, at that time, thinking what you thought, feeling as you did. These are the times.”
As a mystery, this book is similar to works by P.D. James, Elizabeth George and their ilk. I don’t agree that they strictly belong in the category of “cozy” mystery, yet they aren’t exactly on the suspense/thriller end of the spectrum either. One gets many details of the city, surrounding countryside, living spaces, and off-duty activities. There are frequent breaks in the action for a spot of tea and biscuits. Crimes, no matter how gruesome, are described with as much decorum as possible under the circumstances. But the tension stays palpable. Perhaps these mysteries could be called “cozy thrillers.” While sharing some of the preoccupations of cozies, they are more complex and darker, and certainly more riveting.
Evaluation: This is a well-written book in which the mystery is resolved around two-thirds of the way through, but the suspense continues to build nevertheless, right until the end. There is much more to think about with this book than “who done it.”
Freya Graffham is a lovely character: so flawed and human yet very appealing, perhaps even because of her vulnerability. Simon is mostly absent, but central in the characters minds, much as Adam Dalgliesh sometimes is for P.D. James. Karin, a friend of Simon’s family who has contracted cancer just when her life has gotten on track, is a poignant and courageous character whose struggles with adjustment are heart-wrenching.
This book is well worth reading.
Published in the U.S. by The Overlook Press, 2008