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97 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent - but is it detective fiction?, 31 Mar 2010
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This review is from: The Shadows in the Street: A Simon Serrailler Novel (Simon Serrailler 5) (Hardcover)
Dorothy L Sayers called "Busman's Honeymoon" "A love story with detective interruptions". I am increasingly convinced that Susan Hill's excellent Simon Serrailler series is a family or perhaps a community story with detective interruptions. This is particularly noticeable in this book because the echoes of Trollope which have been present throughout the series become very insistent with the arrival in the cathedral close of ringers for Dr and Mrs Proudie and their tame canon. All ecclesiastical hell is forthwith let loose in the form of the High Church/Low Church antipathy (including the spats over music) so integral to Barchester Towers. But here the extra spice is added not by the problem of who is to be warden of the hospital, but by divisions amongst the church helpers as to how best to deal with Lafferton's emerging and complex prostitution problem. And hence, as two prostitutes are killed, we slide into the detective interruptions; Simon returns from leave to take over the murder enquiry and to welcome two bright new faces to his team (though past form with Hill leaves one doubtful as to whether they will be with us for many books - for her the powerful relationships lie outside the environment of work). The detective elements this time seem generally pretty unrewarding for all involved (which one suspects is far nearer to the truth than many detective novels would have us believe) - some pretty obvious leads are chased up to no great effect, the press have to be kept at bay and the teams motivated while a lot of no progress is made and more women - one even from the hallowed precincts of the Close disappear.
Meanwhile Susan Hill moves us incredibly skillfuly between the progress of Simon's family (Cat in Eleanor Bold mode bridging the gap between High and Low Church, Simon's faltering steps towards a workable relationship with his father's new wife, the family conversations in the kitchens at the farmhouse and Hallam House) and beautifully written vignettes which bring to life the people who will be joining us for this book only - the victims, the suspects, the friends whose paths cross that of the murderer. With the latter group the great skill of Susan Hill is evident in the fact that you let all of them go at the end of the book with regret - they have become real, and one wants to know how they progress, even after the denoument which reveals the perpetrator. And about that denoument - really not even a detective interruption - the solution of the case is not one for which any of the detective team will be able to claim much credit!
So the series remains one which is bound to disappoint those who want a detective novel to be all or even principally about detection, and the police team, but which offers a wonderful read, a nuanced and real story (apart from that body count in Lafferton, which is really getting worrying!) which engages with and debates the difficulties of family and community life. For myself, I think this is all to the good, but I know others think differently!
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Apr 2010 18:31:43 BDT
K. Lawrence says:
i love this review. i hadnt compared these novels with trollope before but now i can really see the similarities. thanks

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Apr 2010 10:52:53 BDT
Rich says:
In my opinion, Trollope is in a completely different league to Hill's Serrailler novels. I agree that Hill writes about the secondary characters well, it's a shame that the regulars, Simon and Cat etc, are so flat and unlikeable.

Posted on 5 May 2010 15:04:03 BDT
bookelephant says:
Thanks to both for your comments!
I have been mulling over Rich's comment about "different league" and I am not so sure that I agree. I do agree that the best of Trollope is better than any of the Serailler novels so far. But of course Trollope is not always on his very best form, and I would put Susan Hill (and the Serailler novels) well ahead of Trollope off form ("Kept in the Dark" for example. And frankly, I cannot bring myself to like Phineas Finn!). As for Trollope at his best vs Susan Hill at hers? Well, I would definitely plump for Trollope myself even though I think some of her work is really exceptional ("Strange Meeting" for example). But I suspect that may be in part because I like life comfortable, and Susan Hill really doesn't seem to - she is on a mission to disturb!
As for Simon and Cat being flat I don't see it that way. I see it more as a different perspective. They are parts of the series, and we see them intimately, as if we are already in their lives, with the shadings of character all there and the difficulties of decoding behaviour in proximity. We will learn them gradually, with their stories. Whereas with the "bit parts" Hill uses the novelist's omniscience more, standing at a distance and ensuring we see them clearly for their short visit ...

In reply to an earlier post on 24 May 2010 18:45:53 BDT
Rich says:
I wonder if perhaps Susan Hill is too close to the characters of Simon & Cat? They are a pair that could certainly use the novelist's distance. Cat, is just awful. Smug, saintly, long-suffering, everything is always from her point of view. It's a shame Susan Hill did so little with her husband. His take on Simon & Cat would have been interesting.

Posted on 18 Jun 2010 16:09:21 BDT
I agree with all Bookelephant has to say. I bought this book on Wednesday and had fnished it the following day, worse luck! I have read - or listened - to all her previous Serrailler novels and like them more with each new publication. I feel I truly know and care about these characters and I never finish one of her books feeling left in the air because I know the theme will be developed further in the next. I also agree about Trollope, but as he is my most favourite author (recommend anyone to look up Timothy West's brilliant readings on and buy them - you won't be disappointed) the comparison is all to the good. Other similar authors who come to mind are Susan Howatch (with her Starbridge Cathedral series) and Elizabeth Jane Howard with the Cazalet Chronicles. All three of these writers leave the reader longing for more and with a true affection for the characters which have been so carefully and lovingly drawn for the reader.

Posted on 13 Jul 2010 18:39:55 BDT
Sid Nuncius says:
An excellent, very perceptive review - thanks. I wholeheartedly agree and, like you, find Cat and Simon interesting, flawed, likeable and very believable. As well as the Trollope echoes, I was rather struck by the similiarty in places to the exceelen Five Daughters on BBC1 recently, with the symapthetic but honest and unsparing portraits of some of the women working as prostitutes. Hill can't have known of the programme while writing this, but I wonder whether she took some inspiration (if that's the right word for such terrible acts of violence) from the Ipswich murders. Just a thought.

Posted on 18 Sep 2013 17:10:43 BDT
Pev says:
I agree with this review, very fair, and the Joanna Trollope undertones are to be acknowledged. nevertheless, a good story well told, the 'perp' not a surprise though. I have forgiven the lack of surprise, as I liked the storyline and the private lives of Cat and Simon.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Sep 2013 17:12:51 BDT
Pev says:
I thought everyone was referring to Joanna Trollope not Anthony Trollope
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