Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Review #4: THE RISK OF DARKNESS by Susan Hill

British, brooding, and blonde . . .

As will become evident to all over time, I prefer my detectives British and brooding. As for blonde, well, it makes a good lead in.

Frankly, though, I don't think you can pull off a really authentic air of brooding from under a shiny crown of golden locks, do you? So whenever an author describes the brooder as also being blonde, I just darken things up a bit with my mental Crayolas. Doesn't hurt anybody. After all, when the BBC brought Elizabeth George's blonde-haired Inspector Lynley to life on the small screen, they cast Nathaniel Parker - without dousing him in peroxide!

But, as long as I'm being honest, the British thing is really optional. The most important quality I look for in a good detective is the ability to brood. And the best brooder I've come across is James Lee Burke's Louisiana detective, Dave Robicheaux, who has brooded his way through roughly 17 novels and 4 wives. Maybe 5. If not 5 yet, it will be sooner or later. (How do I know this? Because that's what they brood about. No matter where, no matter who, the basis of a good brood is being unlucky in love - lonely, alienated, misunderstood. But that's a discussion for another essay.) Dave Robicheaux broods wide, deep, and long - and I don't believe he has ever set foot on the British moorlands. On the other hand, there's an awful lot to be said for atmosphere . . .

So, let's see how Susan Hill's DCI Simon Serrailler stacks up as a detective after my own heart:



(Lonely, alienated, misunderstood.
Check, check, and check.)

Oh, all right! So he's blonde! In fact, he's "white blonde" and several times jeeringly referred to as "Blondie." There's brown crayon marks all over my book! Now, can we just get on with the review?!

Susan Hill's THE RISK OF DARKNESS is the third book in her series featuring Chief Inspector Simon Serreiller. This is an intelligent, provocative, and well-written novel. I just didn't like it. I read it because I received an advanced reader's copy through Library Thing's Early Reviewer Program. I had read the first book in the series, THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN, and it never quite clicked with me. At the time, I chalked it up to being distracted by some pretty serious real-life stresses and upheavals and not with any flaws of the book. But as I began THE RISK OF DARKNESS, I was overcome with a feeling of deja vu - I just couldn't get into it properly; I had trouble thinking of Simon Serreiller as the "main" character; interesting things were happening, but the threads seemed too random, and I wasn't connecting the pieces. When the murderer was apprehended within the first third of the book, I finally realized this was no who-dunnit.

Perhaps if I had not initially approached the book as a detective novel, I would have enjoyed it more, but the profusion of dead bodies added to my misconception. Aside from an unnamed number of children, there are several other deaths from both violent and natural causes. It seems to me that the novel is more of an examination of the ripple-like effects of death on those left behind. Simon, still grieving deaths which occurred in the first two novels of the series, not only attempts to support friends and family members suffering sudden losses but also endures yet another major loss of his own. I don't believe there is a single character in the novel who is not touched by death. It is the different ways in which the characters react and cope with these deaths that drive the story. Whether you find these reactions and coping mechanisms realistic and sympathetic will determine how much this novel appeals to you. As a psychological exploration of grief, I found it ultimately generalized and superficial. I would have preferred more in-depth focus on less characters. I also found the depiction of Max Jameson, a grieving husband who descends into insanity, to be distractingly over the top.

THE RISK OF DARKNESS is definitely not a stand alone novel. I'm sure my enjoyment of the story was compromised by not having read the second book in the series, THE PURE IN HEART. It might surprise you to learn that I have every intention of "backtracking" and reading that one as well as the next volume when it is released in the U.S. Why? Well, this may not be a conventional detective series, but it is not without some elements of mystery. For instance, what is the significance of Simon being one of a set of triplets? It's mentioned frequently enough that obviously it's a fact meant to be noticed. Simon's family members are important secondary characters, and we learn a lot about them, but why should he be one of a triplet? Has this distinction shaped his development in some way? It seems counter to him being so emotionally isolated. Also, what is the point of Simon so often being mistaken as gay? Male, female, straight, not, in both novels I've read, one character or another repeatedly assumes him to be gay. Coming across as gay is more complicated than just being good-looking, impecably dressed, and emotionally distant with women. As I read I kept asking myself, What is the point? THE RISK OF DARKNESS is less a "who-dunnit?" than a "why-is-it?"

That I believe there are answers to these questions (and others) is indicative of the respect I have for the author. Susan Hill's first book was published in the early 1960's, and since then she has written numerous novels, non-fiction, children's books, plays, and short stories as well as won multiple awards including the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize (1972 for THE BIRD OF NIGHT). This is a woman who puts enormous thought and planning into her writing. I haven't read any of her other works, but several titles are now on my to-be-read list, particularly THE WOMAN IN BLACK. I can't help but think there is some overarching theme to the Simon Serrailler novels that it not yet evident from my spotty reading of the series, and I want to find out what it is. I do so love a mystery!

And besides, I've thought of an actor to play Simon in my mental movie that makes his brooding blondeness much more appealing. Want to know who? Of course you do! (click that to find out)

MY RATING: 3.5/5

Synopsis (from
Simon Serrailler in love at last — in the third crime novel about Susan Hill’s fictional Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler’s story began in The Various Haunts of Men (about a serial killer against a background of alternative medicine) and continued with The Pure in Heart (about a kidnapped schoolboy against a background of the “innocence” of children and the handicapped). Susan Hill is not afraid to tackle difficult issues, or face up to the realities of stress in a busy police station. Her third crime novel, The Risk of Darkness, equally compulsive and convincing, follows up the child abduction and explores the crazy grief of a widowed husband, a derangement that turns to obsession and threats, violence and terror. Meanwhile, handsome, introverted Simon Serrailler, whose cool reserve has broken the hearts of several women, finds his own heart troubled by a feisty female priest with red hair. The Risk of Darkness is packed with action and adventure. Like Various Haunts, it hinges on a terrific twist that comes as a complete surprise to the reader.

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Pub. Date: March 2009
Sales Rank: 81,802


Molly said...

I have read Woman in Black - and actually seen the play twice in London. It is EXCELLENT!

I very much want to read more of her work. I just recently found a copy of the Various Haunts of Men and want to find the time to read it soon. I am also very interested in reading her book, Mrs. de Winter.

Zibilee said...

Sorry you didn't love this one. Based on your description, I probably would not really like it either.

Wanda said...

This is what I call a positive negative; an entertaining, well researced and thought out review of a book that didn't quite do it for you. Love your pick to play the lead role in the movie version!

Kudos to you for giving the series another try. I recently came across a book that I personally didn't care for and that's it, I really don't see me reading any more of his books anytime soon.

Belle said...

I'm very glad to read your review. I've read the Various Haunts of Men, and have The Risk of Darkness in my tbr pile right now, but I haven't read The Pure in Heart. I think I'd better get a copy of that first before I start Risk of Darkness.