Review of “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

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.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by The Overlook Press, 2008

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12 Responses to Review of “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

  1. Julie P. says:

    I love your use of the term “cozy thrillers!” I think you’re on to something!

  2. suziqoregon says:

    I’m so glad to hear you liked this book. I read it last year and enjoyed it a lot. I just read the second in the series a couple of weeks ago.

    Love the term ‘cozy thrillers’. What I enjoy about the two in this series that I’ve read is that the central crime or mystery is not the only story she’s telling. My Husband is reading this one now and he typically reads just a few pages before falling asleep. He commented the other day that he was glad to have had enough reading time when he started this one to get a ways into it.

  3. bermudaonion says:

    I’ve read almost every one of P. D. James’ books, so I bet I’d like this one!

  4. Serena says:

    Sounds like a mystery worth reading. I haven’t heard of this series before…thanks for the review

  5. Sandy says:

    I am all for realism with thrillers. It’s not like I wish ill luck on the characters, but I get so tired of the predictability of everyone escaping tragedy “just in time”. I admire an author that can throw a character under the bus now and again.

  6. Barbara says:

    I’ve always thought P.D. James’ books should be called “novels-in-which-there-happens-to-be-a-murder.” I know, too long. Cozy/thrillers will do. This book sounds like something I will love.

  7. Jenners says:

    I’m smiling here. I’m so happy to read your thoughts on this … you said so much more than I ever could with it. : )

    And you go ahead an coin a new genre while you are at it!

  8. Margot says:

    I really like the quote you used. Just that small paragraph tells me a lot about the writing. I also like the idea of this character.

  9. Nymeth says:

    This sounds like my kind of mystery – the kind that more than about whodunit, is about how the people involved coped with what happened.

  10. Belle says:

    I like to call these “literary mysteries” but “cozy thrillers” is even more descriptive!

    Susan Hill has quite a large output, with several literary (non-crime) novels to her credit (she’s won the Somerset Maugham award) , which probably explains the richness of her prose. I love mysteries like her Serailler series – there’s so much oomph to them!

  11. Audrey says:

    Great review, thanks! I like the setting of this story. Sounds like a great read. I just finished a medical mystery thriller called, “ The Ovary Wars,” which kept my attention all the way to end. The story is about women who are becoming infertile and the government needs to find out who is doing this before it is too late. There are a lot of twists and turns in this one, which made it very intriguing. You should check it out!

  12. I very much liked this book too…even with it’s rather shocking ending. Or maybe because of it rather shocking ending. And the others in the series are quite good too, even if maybe this was my favorite.

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