Simon Serrailler is faced with that most complicated of investigations - a cold case. Freak weather and flash floods have hit southern England. The small cathedral town of Lafferton is underwater, and a landslip on the moor has closed the roads. As the rain slowly drains away, a shallow grave - and a skeleton - is exposed; 20 years have passed, and the remains of missing teenager Joanne Lowther have finally been uncovered. Joanne, an only child, had been on her way home from a friend's house that night. She was the daughter of a prominent local businessman, and her mother had killed herself two years after she disappeared, unable to cope. Cold cases are always tough, and in this latest mystery in the acclaimed series from Susan Hill, Simon Serrailler is forced to confront his most grisly, dangerous, and complex case yet.
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Most of the professional reviews of the Simon Serrailler books -- of which this is number six -- talk about 'crime fiction'. In this book, the blurbs note that Detective. Serrailler is trying to solve the mystery of two young girls who disappeared. That's true of course -- that's one story line, and a fine one it is. But there are many more fictional genres woven into these books -- there's the family saga of the inherently fascinating Serrailler family themselves, where a set of now-adult triiplets (Simon is one) were pretty much forced by their demanding and uncompromising father to take up the family profession, medicine. Dr. Cat Dearborn did, Dr. Ido Serrailler did -- but then left for Australia, never to return. So far, anyway.
But Simon, also a gifted artist, refused to study medicine and took up police work instead, a choice he continues to suffer for. The family dynamic in these books is endlessly fascinating -- Dr. Cat's young (doctor) husband recently passed away, leaving her a young widow with responsibilities not only for running their clinic but for their kids as well, some of whom aren't doing as well as they'd like. And then there's Simon's inability -- or unwillingness -- to commit himself to a woman, a theme which continues in this book in a totally unique way.
But each book also addresses a contemporary social issue -- this one involves questions of life and death, specifically who should make the decision about when to die. There's a story line in this book about Jocelyn, a 73 year old woman with a not only incurable disease, but one which will soon bring about a very painful and lingering death. The story of Jocelyn is some of the best writing of this entire series. There was one segment when I was listening so hard I hardly dared breathe, I was so afraid of missing a word. In terms of psychological suspense, this is the best example I've ever read. In terms of "tense", fiction just doesn't get any better than this.
Then there's the unscrupulous death-masters, in Switzerland and elsewhere, who prey on suffering people wishing to end it all with an "assisted suicide". It's said that if you want to learn the truth, you must read fiction, and in that sense, this is the greatest book on the subject anywhere -- not that it will give you answers, but that it makes you ask the questions. Who gets to play Gd? Does anyone? That's one of the recurring themes in this book, and to some extent, in different ways, all the characters find themselves addressing that issue.
Maybe Susan Hill's greatest genius is that she weaves all this together in a 'can't put it down' format -- there's nothing preachy about these books, nothing scholarly, or nothing that would appear to be so. Just strings of absolutely fascinating storytelling, tales of lives so good you simply can't wait for the next book, so you go back and listen to the earlier ones again. And she always leaves a few strings dangling, too -- stories left unfinished, not that it's necessary. Having read one of these books, there's no way you won't be holding your hands out, waiting for the next.