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June 30, 2008

The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill

There is a precedent for me appreciating crime fiction turns by literary writers, and her name is Kate Atkinson and so I was intrigued to read The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill. I’d read Hill’s 1973 novel In the Springtime of the Year quite recently, she has run her own press Long Barn Books since 1997, and is a very prolific blogger.

I also suspect that it’s true that I’d like crime fiction full stop, but I’ve not read enough of it to be sure of this. The rush to the end though, pieces fall together– it’s my favourite part of reading anything.

The Vows of Silence is fourth in a series of Simon Serrailler novels (and a fifth is in the works). Though the book stood alone just fine, back story illuminated whenever necessary, but not so that detail was superfluous. I had all the tools I required to follow the story of Detective Simon Serrailler, on the case when random sniper starts shooting young women in the Cathedral town of Lafferton. The first victim a new bride shot dead just inside her apartment, then a group of girls out at a club for a hen night, and a wedding dress designer who’s been advertising in town– and all this with an upcoming wedding at the cathedral, with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall scheduled to be in attendance.

I’m not sure this is the case with most crime novels, but it is in my limited experience that neither the crimes themselves, nor their solving are what first and foremost propels the narrative. Perhaps in the last fifty pages, yes, who done it will keep you reading late into the night, but there has to be more to drive a whole book. Here it was the characters, the lives of the people of Lafferton, and their interconnectedness, their various connections to the crimes. Hill’s background as a literary writer evident as she populates this community with such vivid characters– people– and the different ways these peoples’ lives are cast in the shadow of the crimes taking place around them.

Hill has stated writing crime fiction appeals to her as an opportunity to address contemporary life and its issues, and this engagement is well reflected here. Also themes relating to love, marriage and togetherness continue– Simon’s sister husband’s diagnosis of a brain tumour, a widow falling in love again, Simon’s father’s new partner becoming part of their family. Simon juxtaposed with all of this, a loner, whose own story is hard to decipher from just this one book out of a series, and what would probably send a curious reader back to the previous three. Who also hasn’t the time much to analyze his personal life, what with just days until the cathedral wedding and the gunman still out on the loose…

I do wonder, what in a literary writer’s background makes the foundation of a good crime writer? Strength in plot-building, definitely, and I could see how short story experience would be beneficial to compressing much into little, and it would take a novelist’s deft hand to bind all these pieces together. Certainly Susan Hill’s apprenticeship must have served her well, for The Vows of Silence is a pleasure.

(By the way, in terms of genre-crossing, an interesting post on Hill being welcome or otherwise in the exclusive world of crime fiction.)

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