First novels are make or break kind of things. I know all about it. If the Lazarus Effect hadn’t done reasonably well, we would not have been five novels into the series as of this summer (Roma Aeterna is coming). Whatever trepidation Susan Hill, who lives in a Gloucestershire farm house, might have had about her first mystery, it was entirely unwarranted. People went wild over The Various Haunts of Men, comparing her to P.D. James. High praise indeed. It is one of those rare novels where it comes out first in paperback, and because of all the clamor it then is later released in hardback. Having already read one of her Simon Serailler novels given to me by my chum Richard Bauckham, I was prepared to believe the hype. And I was not disappointed. This woman can write, and unlike many, she actually has main characters in her novels who are Christians, not mere caricatures of Christians. How refreshing.
Hill did not choose an easy theme for her first mystery novel, the tale of a psychopath, sometimes told in the first person. And the creepy part of it is, you feel like you are really inside the mind of the psychopath, and can even understand his cognitive distortions and rationales for his behavior. Beneath the surface of the thriller however is the deeper question of whether the mad are bad, or the bad are mad, and if either is the case, are they entirely responsible for their behavior. Take for example the case of the Colorado killer. Do we really think that any sane person would behave like that young man? But does that in any was exonerate him or excuse his behavior? Should wickedness always face the penalties of a severe justice? This novel holds up for us a clear example of extreme wickedness, a serial killer who then dissects and studies the corpses of his victims, ‘all in the name of science’, but does a psychopath deserve a pass perhaps with permanent incarceration and shackles? Or not.
This particular series of novels revolves around a brother and sister– Simon Serailler the policeman and his sister Cat Deerborn, the doctor. Both highly intelligent, both workaholics, and both apparently Christians (in the case of Cat there is no doubt about it). The stories are set in the small fictional cathedral town of Lafferton, well away from the madness and mayhem that is London. And yet surprisingly, evil lurks in the smaller town— drugs, crime, and yes…. psychopaths. Nothing motivates a police force more than when a serial killer is loose on their turf…. and one of the victims turns out to be one of their fellow officers. The sense of fear and desperation permeates this story from start to finish. Though there is romance of a healthy sort in this tale, if you are looking just for a nice cosy gushy romance, this is not the book for you. But it is spellbinding and riveting storytelling. I was unable to figure out who the psycho was until very near the end of the novel.
What makes for a good novel is the interweaving of good story lines with interesting characters. Unlike some of P.D. James novels, there are usually several characters in Susan Hill’s tales which the audience can feel empathy for, if not identify with totally. What this does to the reader is increase their interest in the story. You have someone to root for, so to speak. Susan Hill’s descriptive powers are not quite as developed as James’ but she writes well, and her turns of phrase are good. This is not the sparse and spare style of Grisham.
One of the more interesting themes of this novel involves a critique of quackery— bad medicine, bad drugs, bad therapies, bad incense, bad treatment, and frankly bad philosophy and theology under-girding such quackery. Though Hill does not say this, it is nonetheless true that modern science was grounded and founded on a Biblical view of humankind and all of creation, namely that creation is not defiled by study and inquiry, because creation is not God, creatures are not gods, only the Creator is divine.
I will not give away the plot or ending of this novel, but suffice it to say that you will not want to put it down, so you need to make some time to read its some 430 plus pages. And you will learn something about human nature, and what makes a person sane– a lesson well worth learning. As for being a psychopath— ‘that way lies madness’.