At a mystery-writing conference years ago, a police investigator had the audience cringing as he described the most gruesome crime scene of his career. The room was silent except for his voice, cataloguing dismemberments, crushed bones, rivulets of blood, debris of torture. At the end, the lawman paused to let the mayhem sink in and added, “They even killed the dog.”
“No, not the dog!” many voices erupted as one.
Mystery writers learn early on that readers may revel in gore and avidly follow the bloodthirstiness of crazed killers, but they have no stomach for the killing of an animal. Only the bravest author risks the loss of revenue and rejection by fans rabidly protective of their pets.
But animals aren’t the only stumbling blocks mystery readers set. Although the theme of the genre is violence, the audience, particularly for “cozy” mysteries like those that take place in small English villages, is easily offended. Slights lurk everywhere.
Susan Hill is an English writer long familiar with literary awards and bestseller lists. Her most recent novels form a series set in a small cathedral town called Lafferton and featuring Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler.
While I’m not aware of any murdered animals disturbing the peace of Hill’s readers, her series is becoming increasingly controversial. The praise remains strong, but complainers have become more vocal. “A Question of Identity” suggests why.
Hill is in no hurry to tell this tale. Over the course of 354 pages she shows herself to be a writer more than a storyteller. The pages are filled with characters, described so succinctly, in such well-chosen words, that by the end your mind is crowded with a townful of acquaintances. Less patient readers might get lost along the way. Simon is searching for the serial killer of elderly women living alone in government-built rentals that the English call “sheltered housing.” The murders are uniformly gruesome; these timid elderly women are forced to watch their own deaths in a mirror. While the setting remains pure cozy, the action edges into noir.
Chapters alternate between the mind of the murderer and the daily life of the town. Background becomes foreground as the complications of Simon’s life divert the reader from the investigation. His sister Cat struggles with widowhood and raising three kids, imploring Simon to provide a guiding hand for her son. Meanwhile, Simon hasn’t yet been drawn into the more alarming struggles in the relationship between his father and stepmother. But he will.
The ballet of relationships in Lafferton becomes ever more intricate. Parents, grandparents, children, ex-wives, siblings, bosses, assistants, heroes, victims, saviors and abusers are introduced with gentle perception. Hill has a keen eye for description, an accurate ear for conversation and an innate understanding of relationships. Ultimately, the town and its families become more intriguing than the hunt for the killer. Social messages are more prolific than clues. P.D. James meets Barbara Kingsolver.
The morality play that gradually takes center stage is Simon’s romance with Rachel, a married woman. While the two are madly in love, Rachel is determined to remain loyal to her husband — an invalid 30 years her senior. She has even told him about her affair.
The sympathetic reader begins to wish for Rachel’s freedom to devote her whole heart to Simon. “How long his illness would drag on, no one knew. Years? . . . It would wear her away. . . . It would destroy her.” Will fate take pity on the honor-driven wife and dispose of the inconvenient husband? His disease is in the late stages, “but that did not mean he was going to die anytime soon.”
That’s the way it goes with Parkinson’s. I know. I have Parkinson’s, too.
As Simon and his sister unwind with two bottles of wine in front of her fireplace, pet-lovers are reassured by the family dog and cat safely curled up at their side. But I am not content. I’ve waded through 66 chapters of grotesque murders, immolation, stalkings, heart-pounding chases and clever entrapment. At the end, I silently shout, “No, not the invalid!”
Richman is a mystery writer and former Washington Post food critic.
A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
By Susan Hill
Overlook. 354 pp. $25.95