Review: The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

Title: The Various Haunts of Men (the first Simon Serrailler novel)

Author: Susan Hill

Publisher: Vintage [2005]

ISBN: 978-0-099-46209-5

Length: 549 pages

Setting: The fictional village of Lafferton, Southern England, present-day

Genre: Psychological suspense

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating: 4/5

One-liner: An utterly beautiful depiction of a town and its people, one of whom happens to be a killer.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Freya Graffham has left her job with The Met in London for a quieter life as a Detective Sergeant in the Cathedral town of Lafferton in southern England. As she’s settling into her new job and new life she learns of a woman, Angela Randall, who has been reported missing by her employer. With little to go on but a gut feeling Freya is unable to continue working on the case until a second woman is reported missing. We readers know that something untoward is happening to the women because of a series of communications from the culprit to an un-named person but Freya isn’t privy to these missives and must pursue the investigation with frustratingly little to go on.

I should not have liked this book. It’s a brick of a thing, it really isn’t terribly suspenseful (although the last 100 or so pages are quite gripping) and meeting the purported main character was an entirely unsatisfactory experience. All of these factors should have put the book on my ‘don’t bother’ list. However, its redemption lies in the beauty of its depiction of the fictional town of Lafferton and its inhabitants. Hill paints a detailed and engaging picture of the town with doctors who still make house calls, an uplifting choir and an uneasiness for the new-age ‘healers’ of all sorts who are moving into the area. Layered atop this are a wonderful selection of people including those who will become the victims of the killer. By the time each of them becomes a victim I felt I knew them quite intimately and cared rather deeply about their demise in a way that I often don’t in a standard police procedural in which I’ve only learned about the victim after their death.

Aside from these victims there are a swag of other characters who are wonderfully drawn. I had much the same thoughts as Cathy with regard to the central character of the book in that the high esteem that everyone had for DCI Simon Serrailler didn’t seem terribly warranted based on what we saw of him. However I adored members of his family, primarily his mother and his triplet sister Cat, and look forward to spending more time with them in the future. Freya Graffham, whose annoyance at falling in love with her DCI is wonderfully portrayed, is also great character as is the DS that she co-opts for her missing person investigation. Even the minor players, like Sandy who is the flatmate of one of the missing women, are depicted in so much detail that I felt as if I would recognise them all should I happen to meet them.

Several reviews of this book make mention of the numerous loose ends remaining at the end of The Various Haunts of Men and I agree there are a swag of them. I tend not to mind loose ends as I find them more realistic than having everything wrapped up neatly but I can understand others’ frustration with them. However, I’ve already imagined what’s happened to resolve most of the loose ends and, at least until I read the next book in this series, I’ll just assume I’ve gotten it all right.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Various Haunts of Men has been reviewed positively at Mack Captures Crime and Kittling Books and not quite so positively at Shelf Love. Although I disagreed with Jenny’s opinion about the book I thought she made some good points in her review but I just happened to like the things she didn’t.

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8 Responses to Review: The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

  1. Dorte H says:

    A fine and fair way of reviewing a book that has some strong points, but which crime fiction fans have valid reasons to criticize. I have read the second also, and from a crime fic-point of view it was very slow and disappointing, but the part about the Serailler family is quite good. Characters & environment are probably what she does best so perhaps Susan Hill should go back to writing ordinary literature instead of crime fiction.


  2. Philip says:

    An exemplary review, hugely helpful, Bernadette. I barely made it through one Serrailler, for I found him decidedly unlikeable, and unlikeable in ways not at all interesting. Other characters were indeed vastly more sympathetic by comparison, but they could not carry a crime novel with a weak plot also of no particular interest. Serrailler certainly didn’t seem overly interested in it. Peculiar altogether, but then so too is the author, I’m inclined to think. Shall I risk a meeting with Graffham? I think not, but you made me consider it.


  3. Philip says:

    Just popped back to second that last sentence of Dorte’s excellent comment. I must say that in addition to returning to mainstream fiction, it would be nice if Hill gave up that mindless, reactionary political blog in the Spectator.


  4. Bernadette – Philip and Dorte are right – This is an excellent review, as I’ve come to look forward to from you. Characters and setting are so critical to a good novel, so I’m glad that Hill’s depiction of them worked for you. It’s interesting that you didn’t find Serrailler as appealing; it makes a mystery harder to enjoy if the investigator isn’t an interesting character…


  5. Maxine says:

    Agreed, a very good review, Bernadette. I don’t agree with Philip and Dorte in one aspect – that Susan Hill should stick to non-crime. I agree that this novel had some weaknesses as you outline, Bernadette: for me my main problem with it was that it was too long for its content so it dragged somewhat. But as you say it picked up in the last third – which is a nice change from many books, which start well then peter out.
    But my main reason for disagreement is becuase I’ve read not only this book but the others in the series too (3 more so far), and they get so much better! (and shorter). I think that the series characters are not as strong as the particular case and people involved in each novel, but one or two of the regulars really come into their own in later books. I would definitely recommend persevering with this series as I would rate them as extremely good crime fiction (see my reviews at Euro Crime).

    My main issue with the “Various Haunts” was the shock ending, which upset me so much that I could not pick up the next one in the series for some time. But I am glad I did. If you rated this one 4/5 I will be fascinated to know how you rate the next ones!


  6. Pingback: Review: The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill « Reactions to Reading

  7. Cookie says:

    It was disappointing to follow a character till the very last chapter and see them killed off so offhandedly. Liked the novel’s depiction of the little town, but thought it dragged in certain places, wasting a lot of time on unnecessary details at times, and I felt the main serial killer was not as he was described to be in the start. In the end, very frustrated and disappointed with the book overall. Extremely angry at the author for the bad, illogical ending!


    • I always think it a sign that the author has done something right if they can make you angry when they kill off a character – and though I thought it sad in this instance I also thought it fitting – good people get killed with shocking suddenness all the time in real life so it does not seem out of place in a book like this.


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