The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

Middle England crimes and misdemeanours
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The Independent Culture

It's no surprise that Susan Hill has felt the irresistible lure of cops and corpses. In the past, her work has shown both an interest in genre fiction and a willingness to experiment. The Various Haunts of Men, billed as the first of a series, cleaves to a classic format in British crime fiction - the police procedural set in Middle England, in this case a fictional cathedral city, where most of the characters have agreeable manners and cultured tastes.

It's no surprise that Susan Hill has felt the irresistible lure of cops and corpses. In the past, her work has shown both an interest in genre fiction and a willingness to experiment. The Various Haunts of Men, billed as the first of a series, cleaves to a classic format in British crime fiction - the police procedural set in Middle England, in this case a fictional cathedral city, where most of the characters have agreeable manners and cultured tastes.

Escaping an unhappy marriage, Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham joins the local CID and promptly falls in love with her new superior officer, the dashingly unattainable Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. A serial killer, whose confessions punctuate the narrative, soon provides her with a distraction. Serrailler belongs to a local medical dynasty, and his GP sister becomes one of the links that connect the police with both victims and suspects. A subplot deals with the murky world of complementary medicine.

Medicine lies at the heart of the novel. Hill explores the need for healing and the perversion of the healing instinct. Her attention moves from grief to cancer, from psychic surgery to seances. The book is full of sufferers - and it is these who linger in the mind, rather than the healthy.

Hill deserves all credit for setting out to write a crime novel on its own terms: she doesn't fall into the trap of playing self-consciously clever games with the genre. She has the priceless ability to construct a solidly-researched narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages.

At times, however, The Various Haunts of Men seems to inhabit its genre framework a little too comfortably. As a crime novel, it is oddly old-fashioned, and so are many of its principal characters. Hill is a consistently original writer, but here she has chosen to use a well-worn formula that verges on cliché.

This must have been her intention. But it leads to two problems. One is that it is formidably difficult to produce fresh rabbits from this particular hat. The other is that if you write this sort of novel, your readers will expect a process of discovery leading to a form of resolution, a structure which gives the intellectual pleasure characteristic of this branch of the genre.

They won't find it here. The identity of the murderer is allowed to drift into the story three-quarters of the way through. Neither the reader nor police have much to do with it. The killer's motivation is so perfunctorily sketched that it fails to convince. The ending is arbitrary, unsatisfying and suspiciously convenient. A good crime novel follows its own logic. For all its undoubted virtues, this one sometimes loses the scent.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'The American Boy' (Flamingo)

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