Before the English novelist Susan Hill turned to crime fiction, she had established her reputation as a literary writer. Her early novels won the Somerset Maugham, Whitbread and John Llewellyn Rhys awards, and her 1983 novel “The Woman In Black” was made into a play that has been running in London’s West End for more than 20 years.
Then, a decade or so ago, Hill began to move in a new direction. The crime novel “has become a serious literary genre,” she decided. “My aim was to look at issues in the world around me and contemporary life — which I have not done in my novels before.”
The result has been her series about Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler, the top cop in the fictional cathedral town of Lafferton, not far from London. “The Betrayal of Trust” is the sixth novel in the series, and it showcases the virtues, particularly characterization, that a literary writer can bring to the police procedural. It’s a sad novel, filled with illness, death and dying, but beautifully written. Some readers might be put off by its darkness, but it has the ring of truth on every page.
At the outset, a storm floods Lafferton, and after an embankment crumbles, a human skeleton appears. It proves to be the remains of a 15-year-old girl who vanished one afternoon in 1995. Soon another skeleton is found nearby. Serrailler must reopen the case of the missing girl, learn the identity of the second victim, also a young girl, and determine whether the two murders are connected. The investigation that follows is skillfully handled, but what sets the novel apart is how much we learn about the lives of characters who aren’t involved in the crime story.
The inspector’s sister, the recently widowed Dr. Cat (for Catherine) Deerbon, has become the full-time director of a hospice that is in financial crisis. At one point, Cat takes a medical student on a visit with two hospice patients — an old woman who is grateful for death’s approach, and a young man who is bitter because his faith can’t stave off death. It’s a touching, entirely believable scene.
We come to know well a woman of 73 who is diagnosed with motor neuron disease (known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and resolves to seek assisted suicide. Her daughter, a lawyer, bitterly opposes this decision, and the woman’s fate becomes a matter of considerable suspense. We also come to suspect that some of the people who offer to provide an (illegal) assisted death are, despite their professed compassion, scam artists.
At the outset, the tall, handsome detective is romantically unattached, but one evening, at a dinner party, he’s seated next to an attractive woman of about 40. The two of them feel an immediate, overwhelming attraction, but there is a problem: Her much-older husband suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and she must be loyal to him despite her sudden love for Serrailler. We’re told plenty about the husband’s symptoms, and also about the dementia that has overtaken yet another character.
I have no criticism of these medical disasters. They are well-presented, and they are, of course, the stuff of life; Hill will turn 70 in February, and mortality is obviously on her mind. Still, some detective-novel fans may feel they are learning too much about illness and dying, and not enough about the investigation of the two murders.
But that’s what is most interesting about this novel. Hill is giving us a timeless panorama of life and death in an English town, one in which a murder investigation is only one drama among many. A reader’s appreciation of the novel may increase with the number of years he or she has spent on this earth. Certainly, with her focus on the hospice, assisted suicide, budget cutbacks and other matters, Hill is keeping her promise to look hard at the world around her.
In the end, Serrailler solves the mystery of the two deaths, but his frustrated love affair remains unresolved. And we readers know, although he does not, that a new killer has moved onto the scene. We’ll most likely learn more about that in the next novel in the series, “The Sound of Footsteps,” which should appear next year. Life goes on in Lafferton.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.
THE BETRAYAL OF TRUST
A Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler Mystery
By Susan Hill
Overlook. 355 pp. $25.95