The Soul of Discretion by Susan Hill

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Reviewed by Harriet 

Let me say at once that I absolutely loved this book. I’ve read all the previous seven of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series with pleasure, though I felt some were more successful than others. This one seemed to me to be a cracker – it’s really gripping, though it deals with some very difficult and often extremely upsetting material. And that’s not just in the sections of the novel that relate to Simon’s police work – as always in this series, that plotline alternates with material concerning Simon’s immediate family, and there are some big shocks here too.

For anyone (if there is anyone) not familiar with this series, Simon Serailler is a detective constable in the cathedral town of Lafferton. He has a sister, Cat, who is a GP, as was his father Richard, who is now retired and living, not at all happily, with his second wife Judith. Cat is a fairly recent widow, and has three children, two of whom are teenagers. Then there’s the beautiful Rachel with whom Simon fell deeply in love in the previous novel, while she was still nursing her terminally ill husband. We learn at the start here that she has moved in with Simon.

Anyone who is familiar with Simon will read that last sentence with surprise and will probably be hearing alarm bells. Simon is a profoundly private man, and has never committed himself in any relationship. He has long determined that he will never marry, and is undoubtedly happy with his solitary single life – his private enjoyment comes chiefly from drawing and painting, which he could have made into a career if he had not joined the police, and any holidays he may have he takes alone on remote islands far from civilisation. So it is not in the least unexpected to discover at the beginning of this novel that he is having problems adjusting to living with Rachel, and Rachel is understandably confused and unhappy. However, before any kind of resolution can be reached, Simon is asked to participate in a highly secret undercover operation, and basically takes off almost at once for an unknown destination.

What he has been asked to do is both difficult and highly dangerous. A large and extremely sinister paedophile gang has been operating in and around Lafferton, one of the members of which, Will Fernley, is incarcerated in what is known as a Therapeutic Community prison, where, Simon is told, prisoners

undergo a rigorous year of therapy… which is designed to make them address their crimes, to understand why they committed them, to try to face up to all that – and so maybe to change.

Fernley, it appears, is playing along, participating in therapy sessions, but not opening up, and is refusing to divulge any information about the still-operational group he belonged to. It will be Simon’s job, if he accepts it, to enter the prison posing as a convicted paedophile and to win Will’s confidence. He will have to assume a completely new identity, memorise his fake life story, and, by far the worst of all, immerse himself in the kind of violent pornography propagated by Will’s group. And, perhaps ready for a break from the challenges of domesticity with Rachel, he agrees to go ahead, and is soon immersed in the unfamiliar routines of prison life, and having to spend his days with men whose daily accounts in therapy sessions are almost unbearably disturbing to listen to.

Meanwhile at home there are huge challenges too. Not only is Cat facing financial problems and important career decisions, but she is worried about her stepmother Judith, who she is certain is being physically abused by Cat’s father. Richard Serailler has always been an unpleasant man, though at first this took the form of not much more than being cold and critical of his children. Over the course of the series he has developed, or we have found out more about him, and if his abuse of Judith were not enough, in this book he steps right over the line, and it will be interesting to see where he can possibly go from here.

Simon is very different from his father in so many respects, but it’s interesting to reflect on how much of his unwillingness to commit in relationships may be somehow related, whether genetically or as a psychological reaction, to his father’s coldness. It is difficult to warm to him, though he is admirable in many ways, and I think this is a problem some readers have had with this series. Of course there’s no need to love a central character, and Susan Hill is following in a well-worn tradition by creating a detective with serious personal issues.

Having said that, however, I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything clichéd or hackneyed about this novel. Hill is an immensely skilled and experienced writer, and, though I am not very familiar with her other writings, her professionalism and creativity are much in evidence here. There were a couple of times in Simon’s story where I feel my credulity was being slightly stretched, but obviously I can’t say what those were without giving too much away, and in no way did they spoil the novel for me. And indeed, much of the very distressing material is only too believable. Unlike the majority of writers today, Hill does not append a gushing thank you to those people who helped with her research, but however she did it, the results are impressive. And my goodness is she good at leaving cliff-hangers – nobody will be able to read this without being overcome with impatience for the next episode in the story.

So this is highly recommended, though (and I seem to say this rather a lot) may be a bit disturbing for people who don’t have strong stomachs.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and is often surprised at the strength of her own stomach where crime novels are concerned, as in real life she is like to faint at the sight of blood.

Susan Hill, The Soul of Discretion (Chatto & Windus: London, 2014). 978-0701187644, 340 pp., hardback.

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