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The Shadows in the Street: Simon Serrailler Book 5 Paperback – 1 Sep 2011
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The Shadows in the Street is the latest example of crime fiction from the talented Susan Hill. Hill, of course, has shown that she is adept at a variety of literary forms, notably the supernatural story -- where it can safely be said that she has few peers. But crime fans were pleased when she began to write about the detective Simon Serrailler -- pleased, that is, after an initial reluctance to accept that this creator of wonderfully distinctive ghost stories could make a mark in such an overcrowded field of crime fiction. But five books into the series, it is clear that Serrailler (and his well-characterised team) are here to stay.
Serrailler has just put the final touches to a particularly challenging at assignment for SIFT (The Special Incident Flying Task force) and is enjoying a well-earned rest on a sedate Scottish island. But his sabbatical is rudely interrupted when he is called back to Lafferton. Two prostitutes in the area have disappeared; their bodies are subsequently discovered -- both women have been strangled. Is the killer a disturbed individual with a pathological hatred of prostitutes, as was felt to be the case with the most famous serial killer of all, Jack the Ripper? There is, however, more to the town of Lafferton then its red light district -- the Cathedral close holds a very different position in the social strata, but has its own problems -- notably a particularly acrimonious series of ecclesiastical squabbles. As Serrailler desperately tries to track down a vicious murderer, he is all too aware that the clock is ticking. Then a piece of luck moves events along in a very surprising fashion.
Hill's particular achievement in The Shadows in the Street is to maintain two very different narratives simultaneously, while not allowing the more sensational of the two plot strands to overcome the more intimate one. There will always be those (this reviewer included) who would be happy if Hill were to spend the rest of her life producing her superlative ghost stories, but few will be complaining about her forays into the crime fiction field when she turns out books as authoritative as this. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Brilliantly compelling" (Daily Mirror)
"A crime tale with an emotional core" (Herald)
"Susan Hill's Serrailler novels, with their persuasively-drawn copper and his equally well-rounded family, are real treats" (Barry Forshaw Daily Express)
"Susan Hill is extremely rare if not unique in having achieved enormous literary success in two genres, that of so-called straight novels and crime fiction... Deeply engrossing and enjoyable" (Antonia Fraser The Lady)
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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.
Back in Lafferton there are also social and ecclesiastical rumblings as the new Dean of the Cathedral is causing problems amongst the congregation and staff through his ideas for bringing younger people to the church. His case is not helped by the rather domineering attitude of his wife who sees an opportunity to establish her Magdalene Centre to look after local prostitutes and bring them closer to the church. Amongst those who do not warm to her are Serrailler's sister, Dr Cat Deerborn, still unable to come to terms with the loss of her husband and now worried about how her son, Sam, has responded to his father's death, like `an oyster, closed up tight'. Serrailler and Cat are also coming to terms with the remarriage for their father to a younger widow, Judith.
Much of this backstory will be known to readers of the previous books and certainly reading them in sequence will add greatly to the enjoyment. As important as the investigation [which, to be honest, is not that compelling] is Hill's use of crime to examine underlying professional and personal relationships, loneliness, social interactions and, as here, mental illness, drug taking and prostitution. Cat is the central character in the book, and it is through her eyes and personal and professional activities that we see most of the other characters.
Hill's skills at characterisation and writing authentic dialogue are well known and she explores the psychological depths of a broad swathe of characters from different social strata. The police team takes a back seat to the members of Serrailler's family and to the college and cathedral figures. However, rather surprisingly, almost as if she had lost interest in them, characters on which the author has expended much time and energy slip out of the story. There is a great deal of anger, real and suppressed, in this book - not least from a creepy college librarian, who is constantly pursued by a colleague keen that he join a local operatic group who are performing The Mikado.
The descriptions of the differences between the conservatives and liberals within the C of E did not really hold my attention, partly because I felt that I was being talked at rather than listening to the characters engage one with another. This problem was, however, restricted to matters clerical and doctrinal. The police investigation did not cause my pulse to race and the villain seemed to be rather obvious some way before the end and his/her capture was fortuitous in the extreme.
The brash ambition of DS Ben Vanek, who is involved in his first murder investigation, is contrasted with the experience of Serrailler, who sees much of himself in this newest recruit to the team. However, when a key witness lies in hospital unable to speak and information is desperately needed to bring the killer to justice it seemed far-fetched that the inexperienced Vanek should have been selected. Luckily the witness managed to draw a picture and write a shaky word..... Serrailler is extremely self-centred, repeatedly failing to find time for other members of his family, and his unmarried status is causing some tongues to wag.
The lives of the prostitutes and their children, the dangers that are never far from the surface in their night-time activities, their choice of partners and their drug and alcohol dependencies are very forcefully but sensitively described.
I will certainly go back to the beginning of this series to catch up with the characters' detailed backstories. As a crime novel, 7/10, but for its in-depth exploration of complex characters, 9/10.