The Stranger House, by Reginald Hill

It's grim, gory, fascinating, enraging and entertaining up north
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The Independent Culture

Hill spares us no horrors of village life. The local saint was given to attacks of lycanthropy, the church has a Devil's Door, and the pub hides many a dark secret. As for the squire - his family has been ravaging the neighbourhood for generations. The place abounds with surviving traces of the worship of Norse gods. And why did the curate kill himself?

The intruders are an odd couple. Miguel, the would-be priest, is showing stigmata. He can trace his family back to an ancestor who sailed with the Spanish Armada and was washed up on the Yorkshire coast. Gradually, even in this dour setting, the candidate for celibacy comes to realise the force of his own sexuality. The subtler underlying theme is, in fact, sexual exploitation and control. The book also investigates the nature of metaphysical experience, as well as more worldly mysteries.

Sam(antha) from Sydney is investigating the history of her grandmother, who was callously dispatched to the colonies in 1960 as part of the "child migrant" scheme. This was designed to give orphaned children a new start, but all too often condemned them to brutal semi-slavery.

Together, Sam and Miguel chase after buried treasure, priest's holes and human sacrifices - any reader wanting gory details of Tudor tortures won't be disappointed. Illthwaite is the kind of village where the locals have mouths firmly zipped, and it takes all their combined intelligence to find the truth. Especially hard to uncover is the shameful complicity about Sam's grandmother, shipped off to Australia like a parcel when she became an embarrassment.

There is a serious anger here about the treatment of the wretched children who were subject to forcible expatriation as recently as 1960. This gives the book its emotional drive under all the fun and games, and jokes about Yorkshire. Entertaining and satisfying, The Stranger House combines deep moral indignation with an atmospheric evocation of the past and a fascinating puzzle element.

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