Writing about Patrick Gale‘s new novel, Take Nothing With You, I mentioned that I had originally come to his work through the recommendation of one of my reading groups. The same is true of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler books, the first of which, The Various Haunts of Men, was an immediate hit with everyone in the group who read it. While very much a police procedural, it was a success even with group members who would never normally choose to read that genre I think for two reasons: firstly, it was, as you might expect, extremely well written, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was as much concerned with the psychological effect that the revelation of the murderer had on the close- knit community of Lafferton as on the reveal itself. Unfortunately, to my way of thinking at least, none of the subsequent books (and this is the ninth in the series) has ever quite lived up to that opening episode in the life of DCI (as he was then, DS now) Simon Serrailler and the rest of his rather dysfunctional family and while The Comforts of Home is as well written as the first instalment it really doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.
There are several different narrative strands at play in the novel. Chief among these, I suppose, is the storyline relating to Serrailler himself. Seriously injured at the end of the eighth book, and still on extended sick leave, Simon takes himself off to a small Scottish island where he is well-known to a community that will give him the space he needs to continue his recovery. Joined there by his nephew, Sam, they are both shocked when the body of relative newcomer, Sandy Murdoch, is found, the more so when it becomes apparent that the death is not accidental.
However, pretty much equal narrative weight is given to the ongoing events in Lafferton, where Serrailler’s widowed sister, Cat, has married her brother’s boss, Kieron Bright, the local Chief Constable. Bright is faced with a series of apparently random arson attacks fortunately on derelict properties, but worrying nonetheless, so when the mother of a young woman who went missing five years earlier turns up demanding that her daughter’s case be reopened even though everyone is fairly certain that the man who abducted her is already behind bars, he sends the files north to Simon and asks him to look into it.
Then we have the French strand centred around Simon and Cat’s father, as nasty a piece of work as you are ever likely to meet. Saving face by leaving England after escaping a rape charge on a technicality, and now involved with a young waitress, Delphine, he sets up as part of the ex-pat community only to turn tail and hot foot it back to England when things go wrong, becoming ill in the process and forcing Cat into a position where she has to take him into her home, thus threatening her new relationship. After all, who could possibly be more important than him. (As you might have gathered, personally I would have swung for Richard Serrailler; ill or not, he would never have set foot over the doorstep. Cat is much nicer than I am.)
Add to this the question of what Sam, Cat’s eldest, is going to do with his life and the issue of how Cat herself is going to cope with the life balance of going back to work as a GP at the same time as bringing up her family and establishing a new relationship and you have more storylines than you can shake a stick at.
Writing about this mishmash of plots it suddenly strikes me that what it most resembles is an episode of a soap opera, specifically, I think, The Archers, for which Hill once wrote. First, you follow this character’s storyline, then you focus on someone else, before switching back to catch up on events that started out in a previous instalment. Reaching the conclusion of this particular segment there are several strands left open-ended but that’s all right because it will bring you back at the same time tomorrow night. Except it isn’t all right, because there probably won’t be another episode for a couple of years and at no point do I feel that there is one driving narrative line that pushes this particular instalment forward; that gives it a focal point. What it seemed to me that I was left with when I reached the end of The Comforts of Home, was the need to search for some sort of theme that would at least link the disparate parts of the book together, as you occasionally find in an episode of say Casualty, where several incidents will all have the same underlying message. If there is such a message then I suppose it is to do with not trying to rush things but to give life the time it needs to work things out, a sensible enough pronouncement, but no substitute for a good plot. When the next episode is finally available I’m not sure that I will be tuning in.
With thanks to NetGalley and Random House U.K. for a review copy.