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Sometimes people say to me that they have never heard of Susan Hill. “Have you seen The Woman in Black?” I ask. Invariably that rings a bell. And anyone who found the stage dramatisation or film of that novel compelling, should be prepared to be riveted and disturbed in equal measure by The Betrayal of Trust. In it you will read of a gruesome discovery, danger and betrayal, suffering and endurance, a cold case — followed by another — plus a detailed analysis of issues to do with terminal illness, assisted suicide, and our own mortality. It is written with great fluency ... but it is not an easy read. For many years Susan Hill had an established reputation as a literary writer, having won many awards with her early novels. Then a while ago she seemed to switch horses mid-stream, and her writing took a new direction. Stating that the modern crime novel was now itself, “a serious literary genre,” she decided, “My aim was to look at issues in the world around me and contemporary life — which I have not done in my novels before.” So now, as well as writing the ghost stories which her public demand every Christmas — which are also a departure from her earlier mainstream writing — she also is the author of a hugely successful crime series. It features the invented character of Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler, and is based in a fictional cathedral town called Lafferton, near London. The Betrayal of Trust is the sixth novel in this series, and was published in 2011.At the beginning of the novel we learn that Lafferton has been flooded with downpours of heavy rain, resulting in a cascade of sludge and rubble being washed down from the moors. This landslide has blocked the road, but there is something even worse ... As the rain slowly drains away, the skeleton of a young girl and a shallow grave become exposed. The remains are examined forensically, and quickly identified as those of a missing teenager, Harriet Lowther. Harriet was 15 years old, a bright, confident and happy girl, the daughter of a prominent local businessman. Then she vanished without trace one afternoon in 1995, sixteen years earlier, whilst waiting at a bus-stop. Harriet had been on the way to meet her mother in Lafferton. This started her mother’s downward spiral of depression, eventually leading to her suicide. Soon after this, another skeleton is found nearby, and Serrailler has to determine the identity of the second victim, who is also a young girl. He also needs to reopen the first case, and establish whether the two murders are connected.Those who know Susan Hill’s writing will know that although the book is defined as a police procedural, it will not have a plot whose complexity lies in the mechanics of the crime. Rather, the novel will take a sideways shift. It is not merely the land which slips, but the concerns within the novel. Despite our best efforts, we are immune to Susan Hills great powers of storytelling. We become distracted from solving the crime, to become immersed in the lives of the main characters. Moreover, our understanding of the huge life issues which concern them soon develops into more abstract reflections, and an analysis of ethical principles. Allied to this is the more familiar device of a back story, about the inspector’s personal life. Sometimes the sheer range of subjects involved overwhelms us, and we no longer feel so gripped by the enormity of the crimes themselves. Our minds have become otherwise occupied.If we focus on the story, we are still more concerned with Simon Serrailler’s sister — or another character with increasing dementia — and cannot yet see how, or even if, they will play a part in the main plot. Cat, also known as Dr. Deerbon, has been recently widowed. She is also head-hunted as the full-time director of a hospice, which inevitably is in financial crisis and has staff shortages. Cat has always seemed a more balanced and rounded person than her brother Simon, but his incessant self-absorption seems to begin to fray even her nerves in this novel. The extended family all seem to make demands on her, and she is in danger of becoming the main character herself. She also has to take charge of a medical student, who is very new to the concept of hospice patients; yet another area of ethics to explore.Another very absorbing plotline is about a woman of 73 who is diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and who determines on assisted suicide. Her daughter is bitterly opposed to this decision. As her daughter is a lawyer, there are thus many legal and moral dilemmas and ramifications in store. In cases of assisted suicide, even complicity itself is technically illegal in this country (Susan Hill is English) and a lawyer would necessarily fall foul of this aspect, whereas a member of the general public following their conscience, would arguably have the option of deciding differently.There is also the question of fees, and who else would need to be involved: family, friend or employed stranger. There is the question of the doctors’ integrity, and the professionalism of the clinic. Are any of the individuals offering to assist a suicide (by enabling travel overseas), possibly dishonest and unprincipled — just out to defraud? This part of the story becomes as full of suspense as either of the two crimes. What will be the fate of the woman? Is the professed compassionate help, always genuine? What will become of any companion eventually chosen to accompany her to Switzerland — and face the possibility of prosecution on their return? We examine the compassion and motivations behind both issues; those surrounding assisted suicide, and also the area of hospice funding, budget cutbacks, and appointments.In fact the story is meshed into these concerns very effectively, and feels totally plausible. The problem I found with much of it was that even though it was a page-turner, it did not follow the channels expected in a crime novel. You cannot go by the cover, or the blurb, or the genre this is placed in. I have found this before with Susan Hills work; she breaks all the rules. It is rather like having a hero you follow for half a book — only to then find you are following another entirely. It might make you lose faith in the book. One of the more expected subplots concerns the protagonist, Simon Serraillers, love life. At the beginning he is unattached, but — as always — during the course of the novel, this is to change. And this time there is an added complication. Simon Serrailler has fallen head over heels for someone he has met at a dinner party. But although the two of them had both felt overwhelmingly attracted to each other immediately, she is not in the same situation as he is. She has a much-loved and older husband. In keeping with the novels recurring motif, he suffers from the debilitating condition of Parkinson’s disease. Conscience dictates that she must be loyal to him, despite her feelings for Simon Serrailler.This novel is as always, beautifully written. We learn much about the symptoms of Parkinsons disease and the dementia suffered by another character. The novel is dark, thoughtful and uncomfortable. It is filled with illness, death and dying, but the topics are explored honestly and with a sure sense of conscience. Perhaps it indicates the ageing author, to be preoccupied with such topics. They are clearly more in the forefront of her mind, and the sections about the crimes themselves sometimes seem almost unwelcome, as if they interrupt the main concern, and are put in as an afterthought.So what is happening here? Is the secondary theme in fact the main theme of this novel? Is it not really a crime novel per se? Certainly the idea of assisted suicide is more serious and complex than its ostensible subject — which after all is necessarily hypothetical: a couple of crimes in a work of fiction. So indeed are the issues surrounding end of life care, degenerative diseases and hospices. The author treats these issues with great respect, allowing a deep exploration of all topics through the characters in her book. However they inevitably overshadow the crimes, which sometimes all but get lost. The novel feels rather unbalanced.There are two investigations here, which both demand our attention. Ironically, it is the real-life one which preoccupies us more than the fictional element. It is clearly more important than the other — yet the fact that we are diverted from the novels raison dêtre might make us feel cheated. It is not just the embankment which has crumbled. It is our loyalty to the plot. It is still the story of life and death in an English town, yes, but it has been stretched to panoramic proportions. The murders are just tiny instances of dramas which happen throughout life in Lafferton, which is clearly viewed as a microcosm of the world. The author has her initial promise to us firmly in her mind; she certainly is looking at — and dissecting in great detail — issues in the world around her. They are contemporary issues, these issues of life and death — but they are also timeless too.This is not to say that there is no completion to the mystery. The crimes are explained, as Simon Serrailler solves the mystery of the two deaths. Crime aficionados however, may be slightly disappointed by the ending. They may even have managed to guess part of it, as there are so few characters in the novel. In this way, the Serrailler novels are not as complex as many murder mysteries. Some fans of detective novels may well feel that they did not buy in to this novel to be presented with quite so much much about illness and dying, at the expense of another juicy murder, or a more detailed investigation of the two murders. Their own mortality may not be on their minds quite as much as the authors. However, in sheer quality of writing, the Serrailler series beats many a cops book hands down. Plus there are two more tantalising elements, to make us keep reading the series. Firstly Simon Serraillers frustrated love affair remains unresolved. And secondly, we become aware that unbeknownst to him, a new killer has moved onto the scene.I probably will continue with this series about Simon Serrailler, the tall, handsome, fastidious, artistic, top cop in a fictional cathedral town not far from London. True to type, he is never romantically attached for long. Perhaps this is another case where the author has eventually fallen in love with her own created character, just as Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and P.D. James (Adam Dalgleish) did. But it is not a series Id go to for a standard lightweight police procedural. In fact it makes me wonder which particular heavy life issue Susan Hill will present me with next, in the guise of a less-than-cosy mystery.
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