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February 7, 2012

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

While the business of writing, publishing and book selling in Canada has certainly been adversely affected by the economic chaos of the past four years, our stories themselves have largely remained untouched by such things. (Possible exceptions are a few writers working with post-apocalyptic visions, but I would bet their work is more prescient than written in response to current events.) Elsewhere, however, in countries where effects of crises have been more overt, the literature is already reflecting economic troubles and their impacts– the Irish real-estate boom was an overarching theme of Anne Enright’s brilliant The Forgotten Waltz, and Penelope Lively’s How It All Began has banks going bust and bottoms falling out of businesses built on too much credit.

And even detective fiction isn’t safe. Susan Hill’s latest Simon Serrailler novel The Betrayal of Trust is operating in a very current environment of austerity and cuts. When flash floods unearth the bodies of two dead women in Lafferton, Simon is without the resources necessary to assemble a team to investigate their murders thoroughly. One of the bodies is that of a local teenage girl who’d gone missing fifteen years ago, but the identity of the other remains unknown, and it’s a mystery what happened to either of them. Simon must find a way to crack these cold cases, even venturing to try a crime show re-enactment on television to do the job the police themselves would have done not so long ago. Even after all these years, he knows that someone out there must know something.

Susan Hill is one of those writers I mentioned when I read Louise Penny in December, part of a British tradition of mystery writers who can really write. She’s written five other books in the Simon Serrailler series (I read The Vows of Silence in 2008), numerous works of literary fiction, she’s the author of The Woman in Black (which has just been made into a film starring Harry Potter, no less!), and I adored her Howards End is On the Landing. She’s got cred, and it shows through in The Betrayal of Trust, whose characters are rich and whole and woven into several plots that offer the novel its depth– Simon is lovelorn, we meet his recently widowed sister Cat who is a doctor working with hospice patients (and yes, the hospice too is struggling to find funding). One of her patients has just received a terminal diagnosis, and is considering the decision to end her own life. Another character, whose connection to the plot we’re not quite sure of until the end, is struggling to care for a partner whose dementia has rendered her a violent stranger. Hill herself has never been shy with her politics, which means that euthanasia here is treated for the most part without nuance and as a sinister business undermining the sanctity of life from all angles, and also that Serrailler and his murder investigation is not this novel’s chief focus. The second point, however, I don’t intend as a criticism; the crime novels that are most rich have as much life as they have murder (even if here, the life is mostly concerned with its end).

The two Simon Serrailler novels I’ve read have featured meta glimpses of the real world within its page, The Vows of Silence with its dedications to “The Wedding Guests” (!). In The Betrayal of Trust, Hill acknowledges a debt to Antonia Fraser, which became apparent to me on page 117 when Simon at the end of a party faces the (married) woman he’s met that night and asks her, “Must you go?” I cheered in recognition, and so began another narrative strand of the novel, Simon in love. And while this strand, with others, is not so neatly tied up by the book’s end, the open-endedness of Hill’s conclusion makes particularly clear that we’ll have another Simon Serrailler novel to look forward to before long.

2 thoughts on “The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill”

  1. Claire says:

    I love Susan Hill and just ordered ‘The Woman in Black’ from the Guardian bookshop since its their bookclub book at the moment and of course with the film coming out, it just can’t be put off any longer.

    I read a wonderful author interview with her in Mslexia magazine and since then have read ‘A Kind Man’ and ‘The Beacon’ two novellas that I loved. I am looking forward to reading more of her, thank you for mentioning these books and her bookshelf book sounds fascinating too. Couldn’t we all spend a year like that.

    1. Kerry says:

      I want to read The Woman in Black too. Have been looking out for it in used bookshops for ages with no success. Now I will have to resort to the movie tie-in, I suppose! But looking forward to it. And Howards End… is *great*.

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