In a narrative moving between the first-person testimony of the murderer, and a third-person narrative with an individual focus in each chapter, Susan Hill develops a range of characters, some of whom will meet their deaths at the killer’s hands. The central character is Detective Inspector Freya Graffham, new to the small cathedral town of Lafferton. Freya has recently ended a disastrous marriage but finds herself reborn in Lafferton, taking up singing again, succeeding in her new workplace and developing new friendships. When two women disappear in quick succession on the Hill, a local beauty spot much used by dog walkers, joggers and the occasional pagans at the Neolithic Wern Stones, Freya leads the investigation.
This is more of a suspense novel than a whodunit; it is clear fairly early on who the murderer is, although there are plenty of feints and red herrings to distract the reader. The tension is built as we follow the police investigation, and wondering how they, especially Freya, will resolve the mystery. This is Susan Hill, so the ending is sad, bleak and unredemptive; but also the characterisation is strong and distinctive, the writing beautiful, and the narrative empathetic to all her characters. It is particularly satisfying to see the unfortunate victims as characters in the round, rather than meeting them only as a body in the library; their engagement with life and their personalities emphasise the tragedy of their deaths. Hill is also skilful in showing how the murderer’s self-justifications unravel as the facts become exposed.
The first of the Simon Serailler series (he is Freya’s boss in this novel, and makes few, but significant, appearances), this novel makes good use of its fictional setting that is strongly evocative of little towns like Salisbury huddled around a cathedral, and of one of the themes of the novel, the relationship between medicine and complementary therapies – a generous term for some of the outright charlatanism practiced by some in the novel. It’s always nice to start the series of a book knowing there are several volumes ahead of you to enjoy; now I just need to avoid gobbling them all up at once.