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The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

Well, here we go down the rabbit hole of genres yet again. This time, I’m going to spend a moment thinking about the nature of a literary novel. If I wanted to be dismissive, I would say it’s one of those pretentious books that publishers tout for the Man Booker Prize or some equally prestigious award. The marketers then proclaim the winners, and those shortlisted, as the “finest” novels of the year. This is the same usage as in “fine dining”, i.e. it has a certain class-based exclusivity of access, whether by price or taste or both. In the case of literature, it implies a more complex use of language in pursuit of more heavyweight content, supposedly of interest only to the more intellectual. As in more mundane books, protagonists set out in the fictional world and we see how well they fare when facing various challenges — the plots of all novels involve stuff happening to the characters — but the literary approach tends to be more oblique. Instead of aliens bounding out of flying saucers and blasting away at the White House, we’re invited to experience situations through the minds of the characters. We have to invest a little more effort to infer what’s happening and why the characters are motivated to act (or fail to act) in the way described. Instead of the author indulging in superficial narrative, there’s a deeper emotional complexity to resolve. When done well, these books are a delight to read. There may not appear to be much “action” but, rather like the stately swan moving gracefully up the river, we must look beneath the surface to see the webbed feet paddling furiously against the currents.

Which brings me to The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill (Overlook Press, 2011) which is a “literary detective” novel. We’re back in Lafferton, a fictitious Cathedral city, for the sixth outing with Simon Serrailler who’s now risen to the rank of Chief Superintendent. When flood waters subside, we have bones. After further prodding around, there are two bodies. One is immediately identified as Harriet Lowther, a school girl who disappeared sixteen years ago (the same thematic territory we explored in The Pure in Heart and The Risk of Darkness). This time, the problem is how to mount an effective investigation of a cold case with very limited resources. The core of the book as a mystery to be unravelled is genuinely pleasing as we watch Simon Serrailler follow the hints in the old files and reinterview those witnesses who are still alive. The success of this element in the book is, in no small way, due to the effort invested in making the character of Harriet Lowther feel more real. Too often authors pay little attention to the victims of crimes. They are simply there as triggers for the investigation with only so much background as is needed to supply motive. The clues for solving Harriet’s murder prove to be in this character study. Only when you understand what kind of girl she was and how she might react in different situations can you see what might have happened. Except, how do you prove it? All this is handled in a very elegant way and the actual unmasking of the killer(s) is satisfying, particularly as the second body is eventually identified and the link between the two deaths shown.

Susan Hill in a new photographic technique showing her aura

If this had been the book, I would have been critical of only one facet: that the ending is somewhat perfunctory. I think it would have been far more interesting to continue the story and examine how Harriet’s father and the others involved react to the identification of the killer(s). As it is, Susan Hill decided to create a series of parallel subplots whose only justification is as an exploration of the morality and, marginally, the legality of how we should deal with the terminally ill. Now, let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with an author writing fiction as a vehicle for setting out the arguments on contemporary issues of public importance. As a result of the legal action begun by Debbie Purdy in 2008, the DPP was ordered to clarify the guidelines applied to decide whether those assisting the terminally ill to commit suicide would be prosecuted. For the record, it’s an offence under the Suicide Act 1961 for anyone to attempt suicide, or to assist others in a successful suicide.

Susan Hill goes for overkill (pun intended) on this issue. Almost every character in this novel is ill or involved with those who are ill and might wish to die with dignity. Simon Serrailler confirms he has long known that his father gave his mother a lethal injection and one of his sister’s patients, Jocelyn Forbes, is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and, in due course, takes off for Switzerland with her barrister daughter in tow. More generally, Simon’s sister, Dr Cat Deerbon, is devoting her time to the local hospice and Molly, his niece is taking a break before her final exams to qualify as a doctor, shadowing her mother and another local doctor in their care of the elderly and demented. In a non-family thread, Lenny Wilcox moves her demented partner Olive into the new local care home where Molly is spending some of her time. Even Simon Serrailler’s new love interest is locked into a marriage with a man suffering Parkinson’s.

All these different threads could have been been used to begin a rounded exploration of the legal and moral issues surrounding the way we organise the care for the elderly and the law as applied to assisted suicide. Instead, we have a random mishmash of elements mentioned, but not really discussed. As two examples, we have a woman who offers to go to Switzerland with Jocelyn if paid £5,000. When her barrister daughter eventually goes with her mother, you would think she might mention the theoretical risk of prosecution when her mother returns to England — her mother is sufficiently proximate to death to be charged with attempted suicide if sufficient evidence was available. But, apart from describing events, there’s little commentary. The result is highly simplistic coverage. It’s all moral posturing without any attempt made to analyse the issues and reach even halfway rational conclusions. To say this is disappointing is an understatement. Frankly, it gives a whole new way of viewing the title. It’s a betrayal of the trust there should be between author and reader.

All of which should tell you I was depressed by half this book. If only Susan Hill had thrown out all this half-baked morality and just focused on the crimes and what happened after the killer(s) was/were identified, we would all have been cheering to the rafters. This is not to deny the quality of the writing. As we’ve come to expect, every page is a joy to read as prose describing a city in which an increasing number of people are ageing. The issues of how to pay for and manage the care of the elderly and dying will become more prominent as the decades go by, so thoughtful contributions to the debate are always welcome. In that respect, The Betrayal of Trust should only be attempted by those who want to feel their prejudices on hospice care and assisted suicide confirmed. As a reminder, the investigation of the cold case is a gem to be treasured.

For reviews of others book by Susan Hill, see:
A Question of Identity
The Small Hand and Dolly.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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