I mentioned in passing the other day the fact I sadly still have yet to meet Susan Hill who, no pressure, is one of my favourite living writers. I am still waiting for the afternoon tea we once discussed (see comments here). Anyway, it was not seeing her that reminded me I hadn’t reviewed The Shadows in the Streets, the fifth in her Simon Serrailler series which I am devouring slowly as I don’t want them to run out. Susan Hill is one of those authors who seem to be able to turn her hand to any genre, and in her crime novels have become one of my favourites, even if we did have a few bumpy starts, and this was no exception to the rule.
Lafferton is a city in which the levels of prostitution have been rising. This has not gone unnoticed by the people of the city especially as the girls seem to be grouping closer and closer to the centre of town, possibly due to a rise in younger girls who may have been trafficked in. One person has noticed this in particular and has decided to take advantage of the seeming abundance of women, buy killing them. Initially what seems to be a one off incident is followed by another and it seems Lafferton has a serial killer on its hands, yet it’s most esteemed (well in some circles) Detective, Simon Serrailler, is getting away from it all in the tranquillity of a Scottish island, his peace and quiet is soon to be shattered.
Prostitution and trafficking are two very tricky subjects to handle by any author. There is the danger of adding a moral compass to the subject or in some cases preach about it. Initially I was slightly worried that this may go down that route as Hill introduces a new Dean at Lafferton Cathedral along with his wife, who seems to have some very moralistic opinions of the work of these girls and their effect on the city’s image, I needn’t have feared though. We soon see through Cat Deerbon, the local GP and Simon’s sister, that this woman is not what Lafferton, its cathedral or people want as some kind of pompous vigilante.
In fact The Shadows in the Street really looks at the reasons behind why these women are prostituting through some of its characters. Yes, some of them are doing it for the next fix of a drug, which is often seen as one of the stereotypes, yet why have they got into a situation where they are dependent on drugs? Some of these women end up doing it in the hope for a better life be it through choice, or in some cases not. We see these women’s plight and how some of them manage to gain power and independence through it, whilst some end in a spiralling situation. In every case these are not just nameless one dimensional prostitutes, just as they are one just faceless victims of a murder, these women have their own stories and we empathise with their situation. I found this an incredibly powerful aspect of the novel.
Someone had left a newspaper on the bench. There was a photo of the girl in the green jacket. Missing Prostitute Chantelle Buckley, 17.
Abi looked away. Why did they have to do that? She wasn’t a prostitute first, she was a girl, just a girl, no need to label her. Would they do that to her? Abi Righton, 23, prostitute. She shook her head to clear the words out of it. That wasn’t her, she was Abi Righton, mother of two, Abi Righton any bloody thing, and the same with Chantelle, same with Hayles, same with Marie. Just people.
Of course this is a thriller and designed to be devoured and read addictively offering escapism and chills and thrills. Fret not, if you are worried this is all sounding too heavy, as Susan Hill also provides all these elements, as well as a thought provoking read at the same time. Firstly I should say that I had absolutely no idea who the killer was until just before the very end (just when Hill wanted me to I suspect) when it dawned on me and due to what was going on in the book, which of course I won’t spoil, I got that really sick worried feeling. I was that engrossed. Indeed I was engrossed throughout as Susan Hill seems to know how to make the chapters just the right length and have just the cliff hanger ending that you find yourself saying ‘oh just one more chapter then’ until the whole book is finished. Secondly she also has an incredible power to make a book ever so creepy, as those of you who have read her ghost stories will know, and uses this to great effect to rack up the tension in her thrillers.
He had not overtaken her, he was not someone making quickly for home, with no interest in her. He was there, keeping behind, and nobody else was in sight or earshot. To her left reared up the dark outline of the Hill; to her right, the railings of the park. Houses were on the far side of that – she could not even see any lights, people had gone to bed by now.
She prayed for someone to drive by, for the gnat whine of the scooter, a late-night van, even a police patrol, even just one person walking a dog last thing.
But there was no one, except whoever was now a couple of yards behind her and closing in. She could hear breathing, a soft pant, in and out, in and out. Quiet footsteps. Marie broke into a run. The footsteps behind her quickened too.
The other element I like in the Simon Serrailler series, apart from the lead obviously though he wasn’t in this one that much to be honest, is the way I have come to know his family. I have followed them as relationships have created stronger bonds or had them broken, I have followed births and deaths, love and grief. Not to spoil anything for anyone who might want to start at the beginning (which you will want to do if you are anything like me and need order in your life where you can get it) but in this series how one character deals with grief and how a new incoming member of the family tries to bring two members back together very touching. It adds another level to the series I think.
I really enjoyed The Shadow in the Streets and once again Susan Hill has proved that the Simon Serrailler (who of course is another Simon S so I am bound to like him) series is one which has both those brilliant elements of being gripping and being thought provoking. I am a huge fan of Susan Hill in whatever genre she writes, I do think that with her crime novels we get the best of her literary writing and character driven plots as well as the dark and gothic chilling tones of her ghost stories, a perfect combination.
I am now very keen to read The Betrayal of Trust and see what happens next in Lafferton, before that though I am being very brave and bringing Susan’s modern classic I’m The King of the Castle as my choice for the final episode of the first series of Hear Read This next month, eek – will my co-hosts like it? Will I? Back to Lafferton though, who else is a big fan of the Simon Serrailler series? Who has yet to try it and have I tempted you?