Susan Hill's Serrailler books are one of the best series currently being written: using the genre of the crime novel as a skeleton upon which to hang her stories, she supercedes the genre in lots of ways which has led to her books being dismissed as disappointing. Strictly speaking, they're books in which a crime takes place, rather than books which pursue the investigation and come to a neat and tidy conclusion. Instead she concentrates on the people touched by the crime, and unpeels the layers of their lives to reveal them to us.
This book focuses on the seamy underside of middle-class cathedral town Lafferton which has not been explored in previous books. It's a fine antidote to the recent rather worrying glamorisation of prostitution in Belle du Jour etc., without ever descending to either to sentimental or the judgemental. Hill is an extremely controlled writer, though she hides it well, and so there are no clumsy insertions of moral or social indignation here, instead these young women are painted just as people: flawed, inept, self-delusional, but also incredibly courageous. Abi, in particular, is an incredibly moving portrait of a woman who is a mother first and a prostitute only second.
Hill, as ever, is an acute observer of character (e.g. Ruth Webber who laughs 'often and loudly' but never smiles), and manages to create vignettes (e.g. Leah) that make us really care about a character in just a few pages. In this sense she is as indebted to Dickens as she is to Trollope, the allusions to whom are more pointed here, as other reviewers have pointed out. And like her predecessors'these are incredibly robust novels which never shy away from pain, death and the sheer sadness of people's lives.
The focus on the Serraillers is still here, of course, and there are some interesting parallels made between Simon himself, the perpetual loner, and the profile of the man responsible for killing the women.
I did feel that the ending was a little too 'crime novel' with the confrontation in the kitchen, and, perhaps, a few too many people with mental illnesses in the same little group but that's a small quibble. It certainly didn't interfere with what is another fine, subtle and perceptive novel - highly recommended.