Why is Susan Hill not yet a household name in the U.S.? She is as good a writer, as reliably satisfying and interesting, as her peers Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, Ruth Rendell (though admittedly not as weird as the last). Her detective, Simon Serrailler, is dashing, talented, and complicated; Hill isn’t afraid of letting us dislike him. The requisite murder mystery sidekicks — his sister, his parents, his staff — are given believable occupations and preoccupations. Yet very often when I ask devotees of the genre if they know Hill’s work, they shake their heads. If American readers know Susan Hill, it’s usually as the author of The Woman in Black, which was made into a film with Daniel Radcliffe.
In fact, her seven murder mysteries are all excellent. They’re solid procedurals, but Hill has a quirky imagination and also understands that, in the 21st century, the Golden Age formula for the satisfying solution feels inauthentic. Life is messier than that. We can’t expect Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey to fix everything in the last five pages. When murder is done, people stay broken, and Hill acknowledges that while providing the fast-moving puzzle we mystery readers want.
So, briefly, here’s the situation in A Question of Identity. Three elderly women are murdered. The culprit is acquitted, but because feeling in the community is so strongly against him, he’s whisked off into what we call a “witness protection program” in the US. He’s given a new identity. Ten years go by and in Lafferton, the cathedral town where these novels are set, another old woman is strangled with an electrical cord.
There aren’t so very many patterns for creating suspense in murder mysteries, and Susan Hill has used them all. This time, the reader has information that the detectives don’t. We can’t identify the murderer, but we have a pretty good idea why he does what he does. What lifts this novel beyond the usual escapism is the way Hill draws all the subsidiary characters into the central rumination about identity. How do we construct it? What happens when it breaks down, or must be adjusted? Simon’s sister the doctor Cat Deerbon has to contemplate a career shift. His stepmother’s marriage is threatened and she needs to redefine who she is as a wife. His oldest niece and nephew are adolescents, so there you go. Everyone’s questioning their identity. Except, of course, the murderer’s victims who won’t get the opportunity.