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.