Susan Hill, “The Vows of Silence”

I hate when I do this, but I bet you’ve done it, too. You’re on vacation, in an unfamiliar book store. You see a book by a favorite writer but gosh! can’t remember if you’ve read it or not. You buy it, hoping, and spend the first 20 pages wondering if it really is familiar…. or if you just think it is. Then you get to a key scene and it all becomes clear — yes. Now you own two copies of the same book.

Fortunately if the writer is Susan Hill and the book is The Vows of Silence  and, like me, you first read it several years ago, it’s still sufficiently complex to be interesting. Hill’s mysteries are fairly straightforward police procedurals set in a cathedral town, with the startling difference that Hill sometimes subverts the genre. Cops get killed: mysteries don’t get solved. Simon Serrailler is her very compelling detective, a moody, handsome bachelor who is also a highly respected artist. Serrailler may embody overt homage to some of the classic British detectives like P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh (sensitive widowed poet) and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey (blond, charming, complicated attitude toward women). But Serrailler also has a rich family life which, in The Vows of Silence, brings him as much pain as comfort.

The mystery involves a lone gunman who is killing young women in the cathedral town of Lafferton. Hill adroitly slips in and out of the consciousness of the killer, the victims, Serrailler, his sister, peripheral characters. To some extent this installment in the series suffers from the weaknesses of the genre: characters familiar from earlier books appear almost gratuitously. But there’s a rigorous intelligence behind the writing. Hill is never sentimental, she doesn’t let Simon off the hook (he can be a real jerk about his father, for instance) and she doesn’t solve her narrative difficulties by taking the lazy way out. I’m a little bit baffled as to why she isn’t better known in the U.S. and why I can’t buy her books for my Kindle. I’ve already given away my extra copy of The Vows of Silence, though.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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9 Responses to Susan Hill, “The Vows of Silence”

  1. Lisa says:

    I only came across HIll’s mysteries this year, and then only because I’d read Howards End is on the Landing, and recognized her name – but then I had the pleasure of all the books to read! Cat is my favorite character, and she is usually front & center in the story – even more than Simon sometimes. I hadn’t thought of Simon in terms of Peter Wimsey, though I did think him rather Lymondish at times, but apparently Hill disliked Dunnett’s books.

  2. carolwallace says:

    “… disliked Dunnett’s books?” Gosh, that’s a blow, Lisa. And have you read Dunnett’s charming Dolly mysteries? Not Lymond, but… And I see your point about Simon and Lymond. I think it’s the blonde hair. Cat is wonderful, you’re right.

    • Lisa says:

      A blow indeed. Apparently she thinks Dunnett put Lymond and Nicholas through much too much pain and anguish, and I have friends who won’t read the books for the same reason (one has never forgiven me for Christian Stewart, as if that were my fault). I have indeed read the Dolly books – and King Hereafter too. I love the title of your blog, by the way –

  3. carolwallace says:

    Goodness, Lisa. One wouldn’t have thought Hill would be quite so… literal. I have to admit I didn’t make it through Nicholas. Worth another try? Couldn’t quite face “King Hereafter” either.

    On Christian Stewart (how we’ve wandered from the ostensible topic) — I like the episode because it’s one of the first times you see through to the heart of Lymond, and it has to keep you going for quite a bit longer as he matures. If that’s what it is…

    Thanks for the BGOO compliment. It is also literal. I am too cranky to be in one.

    • Jenny says:

      I actually wound up liking Nicholas more, in a way. Less swashbuckling but more *there* there. And King Hereafter best of all. So there’s that.

      But I read the first Serrailler mystery and didn’t like it at all! … worth another try?

  4. carolwallace says:

    No, Jenny. If you didn’t like Simon Serrailler on the first outing, he won’t improve. But maybe I need to go back and revisit Nicholas!

  5. Pingback: Susan Hill, “The Shadows in the Streets” « Book Group of One

  6. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  7. Pingback: Susan Hill, “The Various Haunts of Men” | Book Group of One

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