Posts Tagged ‘Susan Hill’

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill

The Small Hand and Dolly

I suppose if you start with the broader genre of horror, the supernatural ghost story is rather like a cousin. In other words there are some shared genes, but with genre walls usually maintained efficiently, the authors are aiming at slightly different emotional responses from the readers. That said, we should not distract ourselves or prejudge as reviewers because of the genre or subgenre label. The essence of any successful creative work is that it’s believable. Which, of course, inevitably leads to scepticism that a ghost story can be believable. The majority of people are sufficiently rational to accept there ain’t no such thing as a ghost. If believability is our criterion, every attempt to conjure a ghost would fail. But this ignores the more subtle truth. As readers, we can believe in the psychology of the protagonist who, for whatever reason, believes he or she’s being haunted. In the real world, we all have issues to deal with. Guilt, for example, can lead to bad dreams. If our protagonist loses enough sleep, he or she may hallucinate or become delusional. In such cases, there’s no knowing what our imaginations might impose on our rational minds.

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill are two quintessentially British novellas (Vintage Books, 2013). Ah, another Pandora’s Box to open. If I had to distinguish the American from the British approach to the supernatural, it would be in the scale. The transAtlantic ghost story is usually more explicit and showy with more overt mayhem. British stories tend to be understated and more about the sense of terror that comes as we empathise with a protagonist who suddenly finds him or herself cast adrift from secure moorings in reality. If I had to capture the principle underpinning the British more literary style, it would be that less is more, i.e. that the vicarious fear or terror arises more from hints and suggestions than from anything explicit. The template relies on the skill of the author to create an appropriate atmosphere and then leaves it to the reader to anticipate the worst. I suppose the best in ghost stories gives us the option of a rational explanation, e.g. by supplying a family background which includes some degree of mental disorder. Indeed, we might consider the appearance of a ghost as being a defeat for the author’s inventiveness. Then it all comes down to the characterisation and, sometimes, flirting with the device of an unreliable narrator to create the requisite effects. If there are cracks through which the ghost is going to emerge into our world, they will be cracks in the character of the protagonist. So perhaps the protagonist is just imagining the cold breeze on his neck or is having an anxiety attack. In the right mood, we can all abandon the thin veer of rationality and revert to a more primitive state in which we’re afraid of what may be lurking in the dark just out of sight.

Susan Hill still has the magic

Susan Hill still has the magic

One of the more commonly used devices is the abandoned or rundown country house as an extension to gothic romanticism which enhances its more melodramatic aspirations by placing the action in mediaeval piles. Even Dickens got in on the act with settings such as Satis House in Great Expectations, albeit not with supernatural overtones. So in The Small Hand, our bookseller “hero” is lost and, in the hope of finding someone to ask for directions, enters the overgrown gardens of what proves a derelict Edwardian house. This is a beautifully sustained moment as everything suddenly stills. Not even a cricket would have dared break the silence. Imagine how you would react in this moment of relaxation and peace if you felt the small hand of a child sneak into yours — as if you were suddenly trusted to be a friend. Yet when you looked down, you were alone. So begins a journey. Our bookseller has people to see and books to find. He travels around. Most of the time he feels safe, but then come disturbing episodes. Perhaps he’s no longer alone or maybe he’s following in his brother’s footsteps and developing an anxiety disorder. Is he merely succumbing to panic attacks? This is a supremely assured and elegant novella in which certainty and peace of mind are suddenly put under pressure. When you begin to doubt yourself, how do you tell what’s real?

Dolly takes us into the fens, to a hamlet called Iyot Lock where, appropriately enough, you find Iyot House. After a gap of forty years, Edward Cayley, our first-person narrator, returns to the house. As he approaches the house through the churchyard, he finds himself attracted to three graves near the wall. Perhaps he hears a rustling. . . there’s something just at the edge of his memory, something he can’t quite remember. As a slightly frail eight-year-old boy, he’d never been afraid of the house. Surely this is not the time for fear to come? Now his Aunt is dead, there’s the question of inheritance. And that’s why his cousin Leonora van Vorst comes back into his life. In the backstory, Kestrel Dickinson was one of three sisters who disliked each other. She and Mrs Mullen, the housekeeper, do their best to make the two cousins welcome. They reopen the attics which had largely been ignored since the tradition of having maids had died. Orphaned Edward proves persistently polite about staying there during his school holiday. Like her selfish mother, Lenora is spoiled and aggressive. She hates everything about being sent there as a companion for Edward. There are only two things they share — a love of thunderstorms and an absence of parental love in their lives. And then comes the incident with the doll. Of course, at the age of eight, they are not completely responsible for their actions, but that doesn’t prevent those around them from feeling resentful. Perhaps even wanting to take some measure of revenge when the children have grown old enough to understand. Except, Edward’s motives and actions were more human, maybe even honourable. If there were to be consequences, he would be forgiven. Ah, if only life could be so fair. After all, what happens is just bad luck. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts.

These two novellas represent a tremendous achievement, flirting with the borderline between the pain and hardships of real life, and the unlikely possibility of supernatural interventions as one of the causes. The Small Hand and Dolly are destined to be ranked highly in the all-time list of classic ghost stories.

For reviews of two other books by Susan Hill, see:
The Betrayal of Trust
A Question of Identity

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

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

A Question of Identity

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.

Susan Hill is starting to look old enough to be one of the victims in this book

Susan Hill is starting to look old enough to be one of the victims in this book

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.

For reviews of other books by Susan Hill, see The Betrayal of Trust
The Small Hand and Dolly.

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

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

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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