Sophia Waugh

A ladykiller at large

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A Question of Identity

Susan Hill

Chatto, pp. 354, £

Ever since Sergeant Cuff appeared in The Moonstone in 1868, we English have loved our detectives. Moody Scandinavian fiction might come and go, but Peter Wimsey, Poirot, Marple and of course Sherlock Holmes continue to delight us.

In Simon Serailler, Susan Hill has created a detective that ranks alongside all these greats. Like Cuff, he has his passion (drawing), like Wimsey he has a personal story, which is built up in each successive novel (this is the seventh in the series). A Question of Identity continues the tale of Serailler’s usually doomed love affairs, his ambivalent relationship with his father, his widowed sister’s single motherhood, and his care for her childen.

The plot — the search for a serial killer of old ladies — is straightforward enough; but where Hill excels is in the themes she addresses throughout her novels. Here we have, in the killer — who has been given a new identity for his own protection — an exploration of the meaning of self; we also have concerns about the National Health, and the interaction of extended family life — love, and the guilt that comes with love.

But nowhere is there sermonising or lecturing; Hill is, as ever, a true writer and a true storyteller. We may think we have guessed the murderer, but Hill is always one step ahead of us. Her writing, never fancy or over-elaborate, is sweet and and clear and true, lifting the story above mass-market mass-killer lit.

I much look forward to the next Serailler — even if I’m not quite sure how to pronounce his name. But then, some people pronounce the ‘l’ in Holmes.