Review: The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

In the Cathedral town of Lafferton, England it’s about a year after the events of the first book in this series, The Various Haunts of Men. Several characters are still dealing with the fallout of that book’s rather shocking ending including DCI Simon Serailler who is on a sketching holiday in Venice. He’s called home because his younger sister Martha, who is mentally and physically handicapped, has been taken to hospital with pneumonia and might die. Serailler returns to work earlier than planned to head the investigation into the kidnapping of a young boy, David Angus, from outside of his home.

One of my observations about the first novel was that calling it a Simon Serailler story was bordering on false advertising given his relatively limited appearances. The same cannot be said of The Pure in Heart which is very much Simon’s story. His love of his younger sister and the rest of his family, his frustration at the lack of progress in finding the missing boy, his failure to communicate maturely with his former lover all play out during this novel and paint a far more realistic picture than the rather one-dimensional hero-figure of the first book. Although he turned out to have some very human foibles and some not very agreeable qualities I liked Simon a lot more in this book.

However The Pure in Heart isn’t all about Simon and the kidnapping. There is a detailed exploration of several people, including some who have nothing much to do with the case at all. There is a particularly gripping, if extraordinarily sad, depiction of the effect of David’s disappearance on his family which seemed so realistic I almost felt guilty for being such a voyeur into someone else’s tragedy. Simon’s family feature heavily again and there are other threads including  fascinating one focusing on a man released from prison and struggling to live a ‘straight’ life.

Like Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise I’ve spent some time trying to work out why I enjoy these books because, on the face of it, they’re not ‘my kind of thing’ as they spend so much time focussing on people not relevant to the main story. But when I was mentally comparing The Pure in Heart to other books I’ve read I realised it was similar in intent to Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red but far better executed (and almost exactly half the length!). Whereas Careless in Red had oodles of irrelevant tangents and tried to give a cast of a couple of dozen characters interesting back stories, The Pure in Heart seemed to know just when enough was enough on both counts and drew an absorbing picture of the town and its people without once making me wish for it all to hurry up and be over.

If you want a book that rollicks along at a cracking pace I suggest you look elsewhere. And if you don’t like loose ends you might also want to skip this book. But if a tale that unfolds in intricate, captivating layers and provokes much thought about what you would do in the face of modern moral dilemmas sounds like your kind of thing then read The Pure in Heart. If you happen to enjoy audio books I heartily recommend this version narrated by Steven Pacey who is fast becoming one of my favourite narrators (he was responsible for one of my top ten reads of last year, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4/5

Narrator: Steven Pacey; Publisher: BBC WW [2002]; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible); Length: 11hrs 37mins ; Setting: England, present-day

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Pure in Heart has been reviewed by Maxine at Euro Crime, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise and Tara at Books and Cooks

This entry was posted in Audio Book Challenge 2010, book review, England, Susan Hill. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Review: The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

  1. Maxine says:

    Great review and insights, Bernadette. I enjoyed this one much more than the first. As well as the pertinent points you make, I think Susan Hill has a very unusual mix of talents – the ability to convey complex emotional bonds (eg the family in this book) as well as an extreme ruthlessness in dealing with her characters. So she’s the antithesis of sentimental, but at the same time, is able to really draw you in to emotion and mood, involving you with the characters. Quite a talent.

    I don’t see the Elizabeth George connection so much myself – I see EG as a romanticised view of the English upper classes as an American sees them, mixed up with a good detective story.

    The closest I think I have come to an author who has these skills of Susan Hill’s is Ann Cleeves.


  2. bernadetteinoz says:

    Oh yes Maxine ruthless is exactly the right word for the way she deals with her characters. The endings of both books have initially shocked and angered me but when I reflect I realise she’s done the perfect thing for the story and that my anger is a result of her skill at making me care in the first place. I find it difficult to write about endings in reviews as I am always terrified of giving spoilers.


  3. Kerrie says:

    Yes, you are right Bernadette. Hill’s novels provide review problems because there is so much that could be accidentally revealed. They are probably much more my usual cup of tea than yours. She’s copped a lot of flak because of both the slow pace and the fact that Serailler often doesn’t feel central


  4. Maxine says:

    BTW in my comment about EG I didn’t consider the Barbara Havers character who becomes more central in the later books – so yes, she’s interested in more than just the “top” social class, but I see her novels as more outsider/detached/descriptive than Susan Hill’s more immediate ones.

    I’ve read some of those criticisms too, Kerrie – I like some aspects of Simon, eg his seriousness about his job, but I get a bit irritated with him on the romantic front. (Probably more in the next couple of books than this one you are reviewing here, Bernadette.) Glacial does not begin to describe his pace. But, there is lots of good (or rather, awful!) family dynamics in the next 2 books to look forward to….and the 5th is out soon, after many delays.


  5. Maxine says:

    PS Bernadette, you touch on a problem I have so often in reviewing books – how to review fairly without giving spoliers. Particularly hard with a book like the first in this series! I felt literally sick at the end and could not pick up the next book for about 2 years I was so shaken. So that says a lot for her power.

    But in crime fic generally, the denoument is so often when it all falls down. I have lost count of the number of books I have read in which I’ve been so into the first 7/8 and the ending is a real disappointment, or just silly. Or, sometimes a book is jolly good but there is an element in it which jars or is inconsistent – but you can’t write that in the review without providing a spoiler. For example, the “signature” by which serial killers give themselves away is so often crazy, along the lines of always having the same initials when they use a false identity, etc.


  6. Bernadette – This really is a beautifully-done review! As you folks know, I don’t review books, myself, but I do respect how difficult it must be to give a book a fair review without giving too much away. That’s a fine line, and I’m sure that it’s harder to to manage with some books, like this one, than others.


  7. Deb says:

    I had trouble with the first Serailler book because he was always being described as being such an all-round great human being, the kind of man women fall instantly in love with, and an incredibly good detective to boot, and yet there seemed to me to be nothing in the story that proved that at all. When one of the female characters (forgive me, it’s been a while, so I don’t remember her name) falls topsy-turvy in love with Serailler, I thought she only did so because the writer wanted her to–there was nothing loveable or loving about him. Also, I had trouble with Serailler’s mother, who was described as the warm heart-and-soul of her family, but came across to me as a complete doormat with a very difficult husband.

    But perhaps I’ll dip my toe in one more time with this one.


  8. Maxine says:

    Aha, Deb – very perceptive about the parents. You might appreciate the later novels, then. I agree Simon is not the most successful of characterisations, but I think the author is spot on with most of the other characters, and what is going on on the surface and underneath….


  9. Deb I think I liked the first book in spite of Simon and for the reasons you mention – he was depicted as some kind of god-like creature who was all things to all people and not only was it silly it was undeserved as he hadn’t demonstrated any of the powers of deduction (or seduction) that he was known for. In this book is much more human (i.e. he behaves awfully at some points and wonderfully at others and makes mistakes and all that sort of thing) and therefore I liked him much more than when he was the all conquering hero. I don’t know that I’d want to be his friend (certainly not his girlfriend or wife) but I think he’s a more realistic portrayal of a dissociative (? not sure that’s a word) bloke.

    And I think you might like the way things travel for the ‘doormat’ mother and the rest of the family in this book too – again a bit more realistic in many ways I thought.


  10. Deb says:

    I just had to come back and say I’m so glad everyone here convinced me to give The Pure in Heart a try. I finished it yesterday and it was so much better than The Various Haunts of Men: Serrailler and the members of his family were fleshed out with much more realism and detail; and I liked the fact that Simon’s sister called him on the carpet about his attitude toward his former girlfriend. Anyway, I liked it so much that I’ll be off to the library this weekend to pick up number three in the series.


  11. bernadetteinoz says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this one more than the first Deb. I haven’t yet read the third one but hope you like it as much


  12. Deb says:

    Back one last time. I finished The Risk of Darkness yesterday. It’s not quite as good as The Pure in Heart, but it’s still a great read. Some of the unresolved plot strands in The Pure in Heart are resolved in this book, with some new plot strands being added. I’m now looking forward to the fourth book in the series (which is showing in my local library’s database as a new book, so I’m assuming it was released, in the US at least, relatively recently). So, once again, thanks for encouraging me to give the Serailler books another try.


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