W.H. Auden was addicted to detective fiction. In his 1948 essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, he analysed the craving, which he claimed was similar to an addiction to tobacco or alcohol. He suggested among other things that the genre allows the addict to indulge in a fantasy in which our guilt is purged, and we are restored to a state of innocence, to the Garden of Eden.
When literary novelists turn to crime fiction (as they so often do these days), the results are not always happy. Susan Hill is a welcome exception. Her Simon Serrailler novels have developed into a series whose appeal stretches beyond its genre.
Why? Perhaps Auden gives us a clue. At the heart of the Serrailler novels is a very English form of the Garden of Eden —Lafferton, a cathedral city somewhere in the south of England, deep in Waitrose country. It’s a world that many people would like to live in.
At first sight, Detective Chief Super-intendent Serrailler has his feet (probably wearing handmade shoes) planted in the past. He moves among the upper-middle classes as one of their own, and is fatally attractive to the opposite sex. Like Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, he went to Balliol. Serrailler is a distinguished artist in his spare time, just as P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh is a distinguished poet in his.
So far, so traditional. But there is nothing old-fashioned about the crimes that Serrailler investigates, and nothing at all cosy about the lives of the characters, including Serrailler’s. Nor does the format of the novels have much to do with the standard whodunnit that delighted Auden. Serrailler’s own relationships lie at the heart of the stories — notably with his widowed sister and his chilly father, both doctors, but also with lovers, colleagues and friends. For all his perfections, Serrailler is emotionally damaged and capable of inflicting damage on those who come close to him. He needs to be restored to innocence as much as Lafferton does.
The Soul of Discretion is the eighth novel in the series. The plot concerns a major investigation into an exceptionally unpleasant paedophile ring; some of its members have been arrested and convicted, but others are still at large. The group is formidably well organised and resourced. None of those arrested will implicate the others.
Serrailler is seconded to the investigation because the ring used a base in Lafferton for filming horrific material with young children. One of its convicted members, a peer’s son named Will Fernley, has just been moved to Stitchford, a ‘therapeutic community’, which is a controversial type of prison designed to rehabilitate certain categories of offender. Serrailler agrees to go there under cover, playing the part of a convicted paedophile, in the hope of worming his way into Fernley’s confidence and allowing the police to identify other members of the group.
Meanwhile, in Serrailler’s absence, other dramas unfold in Lafferton. One of them, a rape at a masonic function, provides a darkly ironic counterpoint to the predatory behaviour of the paedophiles. Another involves Serrailler’s sister, Cat, struggling to cope with cuts at the hospice where she works and agonising over the lack of true human contact in modern GP practice. Then there’s Rachel, Serrailler’s lover, learning the sad lessons of attempted intimacy with a man who surrounds himself with barriers.
There are other strands, too — and Hill cuts effortlessly between them, never losing the thread of her story. There is little pure detection in this novel; the focus lies elsewhere. The secret of Hill’s narrative skill is that she forces the reader to invest emotionally in her characters. And then she makes ghastly things happen to them, while allowing them to hope that they, and perhaps we, will be restored at last to the Garden of Eden. It sounds easy. But it isn’t.
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