Lafferton is an English cathedral town, where at first sight only the ordinary urban things seem to be wrong: a diagnosis of cancer, drugs being sold under the overpass, a few too many con artists among the “faith healers” and “psychic surgeons” and crystal-readers. But then an ordinary, middle-aged woman goes missing without a trace during her morning jog, and then a young woman disappears during a walk on the hill. When a third person also disappears, the police — including DC Freya Graffham and her boss, the intensely private Simon Serrailler — are frantic to solve the case. Something very dark is doing its work in Lafferton, and it has to be stopped.
You have to admit, this plot sounds like a can’t-lose proposition, and if it sounds like it’s for you, please don’t read any further — go right out and snap up Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men. Her writing is pretty solid, and even though it was somewhat predictable, I don’t mind that — the characterization is not bad, so if this sounds like you, you’re probably not going to go far wrong. But I’m afraid I found this book intensely irritating, and I’m about to tell you why. [Warning: possible mild spoilers ahead.]
Some time ago, I stopped watching Law and Order, a show I used to enjoy, because I began to twig to the fact that the victims on that show were disproportionately (and in the case of one of the spin-offs, 100%) female. I got really sick of seeing woman after woman, from no matter what walk of life and in no matter what situation, become vulnerable and victimized for entertainment’s sake. Hill’s book suffers the same problem. Even though one of the victims of the serial killer is male, he’s never mentioned or investigated — only the women are important, because it’s scarier to have women be vulnerable and frightened. This type of sexism is too easy. The book is also dotted with casual racism (the DS in charge of the investigation is asked where a (white) suspect did his medical training, and responds, “In London and China, boss. Does he have a pigtail and all?” Huh???) and taken-for-granted slurs against overweight women, assuming that if you weigh an extra twenty pounds, it must naturally be the cause of intractable depression.
I was also mystified by the book jacket’s calling this a “Simon Serrailler mystery.” All the detection, both brainwork and legwork, on this case is done by Freya Graffham. Her boss gives her the go-ahead, but he is working on a different case and provides no more than official support. Hill tells us (boy, does she tell us) that Serrailler is interesting, charming, a heartbreaker — but we were shown none of that. I for one love a blond-scion-of-a-noble-house, and have fallen for many in my time (see Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, and Francis Crawford of Lymond for a start), but Simon Serrailler gave nothing of himself away. He just seemed selfish.
And finally — and perhaps most unforgivably — there were a hundred loose ends. What about the woman with cancer? What about the psychic surgeon? What about the drug case? These elements are introduced and then left dangling, as if they never mattered except to advance the main plot. I love a complex plot with many threads, but if you can’t weave them all in, don’t introduce them to the pattern in the first place.
I wish I’d enjoyed this book more. I expected to. Probably it was just not a good fit for me, and I’m sure others will love it.