Oh, Susan Hill, paragon of mystery writers — why are your books hard to find in the U.S.? Why did I have to get this title from Canada? Why no Kindle sales until just recently? And while we’re at it, could you write faster? Provide me with, say, a book a year, like really commercial writers?
No. Of course you couldn’t. Because despite the fact that you are currently working in the murder mystery genre, you are not bounded by it. Because, in The Shadows in the Street, you didn’t bother to put your detective (the complex, debonair, 6’4″ Simon Serrailler) to work until page 129. Because you spent a lot of time on how the mousy librarian Leslie Blades felt once he’d been taken to the police station for questioning in the murder of a couple of prostitutes. Because you see the Anglican cathedral at Lafferton from the inside. And all of these complexities take time to develop imaginatively, and to write.
No, the fact is that Susan Hill has other fish to fry, so those of us who value her complex, intelligent productions in this genre just have to take what we can get, when we can get it. The Shadows in the Street is the fifth of the Simon Serrailler mysteries. In it, two much-loved English genres connect: the cathedral cozy and the procedural mystery. But Hill isn’t out to reassure. The non-mystery portion of the novel is unsettling. Serrailler’s sister Cat Deerbon and her family are still recovering from the death of her husband, and the communal life of the cathedral at Lafferton — Cat’s lifeline — has been disrupted by a staff change. (Note to Anglicans: the newly appointed Dean wants to modernize the music program; his wife is nicknamed “Mrs. Proudie.” Get it?) Meanwhile prostitution has become a highly visible problem in the town we readers might like to idealize. Hill shares with us the lives and choices of some of the girls for whom selling their bodies is the only perceptible practical choice. It’s the murder of two girls that put DCS Serrailler back to work. If the bad guy was easier than usual to pick out, the puzzle was no less satisfying. I have to content myself with the notion that books this good just can’t be rushed — and wait patiently for the next one.