A Question of Identity by Susan Hill
The subgenre we might call The Golden Age of Detective Fiction or The Country House Murder relies on a rose-tinted view of the past in which small English villages and towns turn out to be hotbeds of scandal and intrigue, often terminating in the “cozy” murder of some local bigwig. At this point, some officiously clever local appoints him or herself as the sleuth and tracks down the killer. It’s all terribly neat with the majority of characters wheeled on to and off the set as required to deliver the crate of red herrings or to leave clues lying around with an inappropriate amount of salience attached to them. Fortunately, that’s all behind us now. Instead we have “crime novels”. This is a rather different beastie. Although there will be varying types of criminal behaviour on display, we’re off into the hinterland of psychology so we can understand more about the motives of the guilty and draw lesson about the current state of our society, perhaps gaining some insight into the darker side of human nature. For these purposes, we’re often allowed a view of several different characters. Some are simply unlucky and live in the place affected by whatever the primary crime happens to be. Others have relevant traits to be considered. The whole becomes a kind of microcosm in which we can, by implication, study broader social trends and behaviour patterns.
As the seventh book in the series, A Question of Identity by Susan Hill (Overlook Press, 2012) sees us back in the small cathedral town of Lafferton with the usual cast of characters featuring Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler. In particular, we watch his dealings with his overtly middle-class, extended family which remains somewhat dysfunctional from slightly unhinged and abusive father downwards. Then there’s the unfulfilled love interest in Rachel who can’t bring herself to leave her terminally ill husband and feels terrible guilt every time she thinks about Simon. As in all long-running series, we’re supposed to be hooked by the question whether they will ever get together. At least they’re not platonic. That would have been unendurably twee and would fail to give Rachel the necessary quality of guilt.
We have to wait until about one-third of the book has passed before we get the murder. That gives us time to catch up with everyone after the last book, dealing with the PTSD and depression in two of the characters, financial problems at the hospice, and so on. The murder at the Duchess of Cornwall Close breaks into an entirely serious literary novel about the people and their families who live in this town. The Close is newly built and, during the first third, we watch bickering independent contractors not exactly straining their muscles to get this mixture of bungalows and flats ready for occupation by the elderly of the area. Of course the murder itself is shocking — the ritualised killing of an elderly woman — but, in a way, the choice of this victimology is consistent with the theme of the last book.
The Betrayal of Trust is an exploration of the moral issues surround the care of the elderly and whether death with dignity should be allowed. Ironically, this book deals with the need to close down the hospice and convert it into a day-car centre, while a deranged killer stalks the streets at night plotting to kill old women who live on their own. To put it mildly, this is a quite extraordinary way of developing what should have been an interesting debate about morality begun in the last book. After the first few pages in Lafferton, I was actually expecting more depth. Instead what we get is fairly sensationalised bulletins from the killer as he leads an “ordinary life” in the town. The author may intend the prefatory material and these passages of purple prose (neatly italicised) to be a window into a deranged mind. Sadly she is mistaken.
There are two quite different points of focus in the narrative structure. The first is the development of our understanding of the Serrailler clan and all the interpersonal problems they have. The second is a police procedural in which our “hero” has to identify a man who has been given a new identity by the police — it was to help him survive after an unexpected acquittal some years earlier. I see no reason why this needs to be set up in this crude way. The best police procedurals look over the shoulder of the investigating officer and allow us to observe as he slowly tracks down the criminal. This novel plays the inverted crime game of disclosing the existence of a serial killer allowed to continue killing people anonymously courtesy of the police force. This is a completely unnecessary distraction. Frankly, I’m not at all sure it’s credible. Do the British police really give those acquitted of homicide a new identity? I suppose we must give our author the benefit of the doubt. These days, authors do their research. This must happen. OK so let’s assume it does. We can have the same investigation trigger memories of the earlier case. Foreshadowing it in this way devalues Serrailler’s emerging anger when he discovers this example of it. Instead of us sitting around waiting for him to find out, we can experience a sense of shock when this startling fact emerges.
So A Question of Identity is quite interesting. I’m following the Serrailler saga, this time with more attention given to the children, while I was curious to see how our hero as detective would catch the invisible man. But I find the book itself a dog’s breakfast. If only Susan Hill could make up her mind, she could write a straight novel about life in Lafferton, or a police procedural, or a properly developed morality tale in which we consider the moral implications of the way we relate to the elderly in our society. As it is, we have an essentially superficial mishmash of plot ideas thrown together and an entirely unsatisfactory result.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.