Book World reviews 'Vows of Silence' by Susan Hill

By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, December 28, 2009


By Susan Hill

Overlook. 328 pp. $24.95

The death that will haunt you long after reading Susan Hill's new mystery, "The Vows of Silence," is a natural one. Granted, a serial killer is on the loose and young women are being murdered, but it's a mundane killer -- cancer -- whose "crime" is most shockingly dramatized. In this, her fourth police procedural featuring the dour Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, Hill overturns the usual priorities of the crime novel and devotes her most searing passages not to the twisted rituals of the sniper but, rather, to the exhausting hospital stays and quiet deathbed struggles of a likable minor character in the series.

Hill's preoccupying theme in "The Vows of Silence" is the randomness of life. Nothing stays put in the world of this novel: Lovers leave, children and old friends mutate into strangers, and a tumor abruptly starts to grow. The serial killer, who chiefly targets brides, is simply the most extreme manifestation of the imminent chaos that always threatens to destroy what's been taken for granted. Hill is a writer who invites the big theological questions into her stories; indeed, Serrailler's on-and-off love interest, Jane Fitzroy, has been ordained as an Episcopal priest. But neither Jane nor her creator supplies easy answers here to the divine mystery of why good people perish while mangy lowlifes still draw breath.

The short chapters told through the serial killer's point of view are the weakest aspects of the novel and should be dispensed with briskly in deference to how terrific the rest is. Our perpetrator boasts the generic serial killer résumé: early psychological damage caused by a woman, easy access to weapons, flexible work hours that allow time for stalking prey. In a classic narrative move patented by Agatha Christie, the evildoer turns out to be Someone We Already Know. Don't worry. I haven't spoiled the suspense. The mandatory moment of unmasking is more ho-hum than humdinger.

The somber Serrailler is thrilled to have his sister, Cat Deerborn, back with her husband, Chris, and their young children in the cathedral town of Lafferton (where the series is set) after they've spent months away on sabbatical in Australia. Cat and Chris are both physicians, so when Chris collapses in the bathroom one evening and the consequent brain scans show a large tumor, everyone knows the score. What follows is a deeply affecting account of how these thoughtful characters deal with the shock of that diagnosis. Hill's restrained style rises to the challenge of rendering the horror and helplessness engulfing all concerned. Here's a conversation between Cat and Chris:

" 'The thing is,' [Chris] said, 'it's not only that I don't want to leave you and I don't want to leave the children. I don't want to miss them growing up. I don't want not to be here, doing what we do, in this place. The thing is . . . it isn't even that I don't want to die.'

"She said nothing. Waited. Whatever it was, he had to say it. To tell her. Whatever it was.

"But he was silent. He held her hand to his face a little while longer, then let it go before getting up and wandering away. . . . Cat watched him and as she watched saw that his gait was odd, uneven and slightly unsteady. She closed her eyes, knowing why, too terrified to watch any more."

Chris's silence is ascribable not only to the tumor, which is interfering with his cognition, but also to the hard reality that he has no words by which to comprehend his own premature death. When that death arrives, Hill describes it so powerfully that the novel halts, and everything else is aftermath.

Aside from the serial killer saga, "everything else" includes other, more engrossing plot strands concerning Serrailler's relationship with the reluctant Jane and the struggles of a widowed friend of Cat's to enjoy a new romance despite the disapproval of her adolescent son, who has fallen prey to a fundamentalist cult. The fact that "The Vows of Silence" is light on what traditionally constitutes a mystery plot hardly registers. It's the intelligence of this brooding series that rivets a reader's attention.

Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.

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