The Betrayal of Trust
By Susan Hill
Chatto & Windus, 355pp, £14.99
Review by Allan Massie
It was the ambition of Dorothy L Sayers to write a crime novel with all the virtues of the mainstream literary novel. Despite burdening herself with the improbable Lord Peter Wimsey as her detective, she brought it off at least once, with Gaudy Night. Actually her ambition was less unusual than she seems to have thought it. The gulf between the crime novel and the straight literary novel had been bridged often before her: Bleak House and The Woman in White being two classic examples. In her own time Raymond Chandler, having emerged from the pulp magazines, was writing crime novels with all the virtues of literary fiction as, to even greater effect, was Simenon. While in our time, this marriage has become common. One need only mention Nicholas Freeling, PD James, Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin.
Susan Hill belongs in this category. Her crime novels, featuring Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler in the small cathedral city of Lafferton are as much concerned with ethical questions and personal relations as with the solving of crimes. Certainly she gives due attention to these, while never letting the reader forget that there is a mystery to be unravelled. Nor does she downplay the seriousness of murder, though, like Simenon, she is aware that murder may be explained and treated sympathetically even though it cannot be excused.
In this new novel Serrailler has to solve a cold case, at a time when cuts in the police budget are straining resources. A storm has caused a landslide and disturbed two shallow graves. The first body is soon identified as that of a schoolgirl who disappeared a dozen years ago. To complicate matters for Serrailler, the dead girl’s father is a distinguished man, a friend of his own chilly father, and the chairman of a Hospice Trust where Simon’s recently widowed sister, Cat, is one of the doctors. Identification of the other body is more difficult
The investigation is interesting enough to excite our curiosity and hold our attention, but there are other themes, or subplots which, one suspects, interest Hill more. One concerns a doctor, an associate of the dead schoolgirl’s father, who is setting up a care home for patients suffering from dementia. The other deals with the question of “assisted suicide”. An elderly woman is in the early stages of motor neurone disease, and is determined, to the horror of her barrister daughter, to go to a clinic in Switzerland to either end her life, or have it ended with assistance.
Hill, it is fair to say, shares the daughter’s horror, and the account she gives of the visit to the Swiss clinic is chilling. Those who favour assisted suicide may think that she has loaded the dice, especially since the character embarks on her quest when the disease is still in its early stages. These two themes are brought together in a way that is painfully convincing.
These Serrailler novels are complete in themselves, but they do follow a coherent narrative. Readers who start with this one, the sixth in the series, are not at a disadvantage, but those who have read the earlier novels will find it more satisfying. Those who come in at this stage of the sequence will surely wish to go back to the first books.
There is only one less than engrossing passage. Serrailler has always had difficulties with women. Here he falls abruptly in love – love at first sight – with a woman he meets at a dinner party. She reciprocates the feeling but has obligations which impede the progress of their relationship. It’s a distraction from his investigation and a less than convincing one, the treatment rather perfunctory, as if the author thought, “we must have some romantic interest to make Serrailler more interesting.” Actually it’s not necessary. He is never very likeable, but he is wholly credible.
What one is aware of throughout is Hill’s keen intelligence, the range of her sympathy and her depth of her moral concern. Her novels are always entertaining but are not only entertainments.
While she never forgets that people read novels for pleasure, and is adept at providing that pleasure, she uses fiction to examine difficult ethical questions about the choices people make and the constraints within which such choices are made. That is why reading these novels, which combine good plots with well-drawn characters and intelligent probing of the way we live now, is so enriching.