OK, it’s official. Susan Hill enters the contemporary murder mystery pantheon, along with the goddess Tana French and the goddess Fred Vargas. Why, you may wonder, are these women deities in my little firmament? Because they consistently deliver entertainment that is also challenging. Because they work in a traditional genre and make it contemporary. Because they divert and provoke at the same time. And because they write so darn well.
I’ve posted about Susan Hill before and I’ve liked all of her books, but The Betrayal of Trust may be the best yet. A discerning friend theorizes that Hill is working on a series of twelve Simon Serrailler novels and he may be right. There’s something very intentional about the way she plants story lines and leaves them unfinished — it reminds me of the later Patrick O’Brian books. You don’t so much have a sense of the author being obliged to fill you in on the sidekicks and incidental characters (which I felt in Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie), as a sense of groundwork being laid. Hill trusts us to be patient.
The precipitating factor here is a terrible tempest that floods the moor near Lafferton and exposes a skeleton. It turns out to be the remains of a fifteen-year-old girl who vanished on a sunny day sixteen years earlier — a cold case, in fact. Serrailler catches the case but this is clearly contemporary Britain, because his struggles have as much to do with budgets as criminals. Budget constraints are also threatening Imogen House, the hospice where Simon’s sister Cat Deerbon works. Cat, in fact, is besieged on all sides; by grief, by overwork, by her children’s reactions to her husband Chris’s death.
What I most admired in this book was the fact that Hill let Simon be an outright jerk. He’s always been complicated, and Hill has sketched in the family background to justify that. But now, whether it’s the onset of middle age or the pressure of work or his always dangerous arrogance, he oversteps the bounds. He’s truly horrible to Cat, callous with his colleagues, inconsiderate at best with his new love-interest. (Gotta say the True Love plot thread did not entirely ring true to me, but maybe it’s there to humble Simon, a book or two down the road.)
There’s also a strong feeling of melancholy. Without dipping into the cynicism of, say, Benjamin Black, Hill has never spared her readers, and in The Betrayal of Trust several of the plot lines are extremely sad. One character suffers motor neuron disease (what we call ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Another has a partner with Alzheimer’s, who must be institutionalized; another is nursing a husband with Parkinson’s. It did remind me just a teeny bit of the phrase from the old hymn “Abide with me –” “Age and decay in all around I see…” Redemption? Satisfaction? The murder gets solved. That’s all we’re going to get. It’s enough.