‘The Shadows in the Streets’– Susan Hill Strikes Again

I was listening to the sermon, and suddenly Susan Hill was mentioned…. as someone who got involved in ministry in a cathedral and it made her ‘giddy with happiness’ when she committed herself to it. The same Susan Hill, who writes these British crime novels I’ve been devouring. The Shadows in the Street is installment five in the series, and it is shorter than some of the others (372 pages). And in some ways, it is my very favorite thus far of this series. The plot is linear, the pace is good, one doesn’t get bogged down in endless subplots, the novel is not a continuation of a previous story (except in the use of the same main ongoing characters whose life stories keep evolving). In short, it’s a a good place to dip into the series if you want to see what it is like.

The focus of this particular novel is on prostitutes and the men who prey on them. Not just the ‘punters’ as the British call them (we would call them ‘Johns’). No the story is about some wicked person who sees it as his mission to do away with prostitutes, and goes on a spree of killing them in Lafferton where Simon Serailler and his sister the doctor Cat Deerborn and their family live. The man hunt for the killer speeds the plot right along to the end, and once again, it is difficult to guess who the guilty party is in this crime spree.

As is also characteristic of this series, the subplot is a Christian one, in this case it is about the new Dean Stephen Webber and his wife Ruth who are charismatic evangelical Anglicans, of the happy clappy variety, and they are bound and determined to change the worship services to attract the young and the restless, to the shock and horror of the traditional members of the church who love the musical excellence and liturgy of the cathedral. In short, the subplot is about the worship wars and if you would like to see what the worship wars looks like in the Anglican tradition, this book will definitely interest you.

Susan Hill’s novels are psychological thrillers, like P.D. James, and so she frequently tries to get inside the head of several of her characters, in this case a strange librarian, a prostitute with heart, and the Dean and his wife. Some will be reminded of the way Hitchcock explored this territory as well. Net result— the human mind can be mad, it can be bad, it can be good, it can be terribly complex. It can be many things, and it is always difficult to figure out why the sane go crazy, or the good go bad, or the bad go mad… and so on. You get my drift. Hill is very good at probing the foibles of humanity, even good persons, and holding up their flaws to the light to see what they may reveal about human nature. Sometimes it’s not a pretty picture….sometimes its surprisingly good. What it never is, is boring. There is a lot of compassion in this novel for the plight of prostitutes and other abused women and that is a good thing. You get a sense of the desperation they live with and the danger they live with as they practice ‘the oldest paying human profession’, as it is sometimes called. You also get an inside look at the self-loathing of many of these girls, trapped in a trade they despise, and being pushed by pimps in one direction or another.

Susan Hill’s writing never descends to being vulgar or repulsive. She is not into giving lurid descriptions at length of life’s horrors. Nor is she into titillation either, as her novels lack X rated sex descriptions. But she is not afraid to point the finger at male lust and male abuse as some of the root causes of this ugly side of life. They are suitable novels for adult Christians that do not pander to the lowest common denominator, unlike the ouevre of some best-selling authors. Hill’s novels have the air of reality, as she resists the temptation to tie up everything neatly with a bow at the end of each story. If not verity, it’s at least verisimilitude. We have one more novel in this series to review and we will be caught up. More anon. In the meantime, try this one if you want to sample her work.

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