Susan Hills, The Various Haunts of Men (2004)

I am lucky to have a workplace library, but every time I go there I’m overwhelmed by the weight of bestsellers from French and Anglo-American popular writers, that I have vaguely heard of but never quite read (Dan Brown anyone? Alright, I’m being snobbish).

I picked Susan Hills for the feeble reason that they had a lot of titles by her and that I wanted something like a traditional British murder. Midsomer? St. Mary Mead? I thought Lafferton, a (fictional) small cathedral town with quiet hills nearby, would be great. The cover promises a dashing inspector, disappearance of several people without links between one another, a possible serial killer in a quiet bit of English countryside.

I was wrong, it didn’t work for me. I don’t know where to start without thrashing the book (and dishing spoilers). It’s been quite a while since a book grated on me so much. And I know what grated on me most:

That I was misled by a cover blurb by Ruth Rendell: “I loved this book. Masterly and satisfying… the result is stunning.” I know blurbs are just a marketing device, but I still tend to trust when a writer I love recommends a book. What happened to you, Ruth Rendell, to call this book “masterly and satisfying”? Was it a bad day? (by the way, do publishers actually pay for good blurbs?)

This book is presented as the first of a trilogy featuring inspector Simon Serailler. But it is misleading: Serailler doesn’t actually investigate much, DS Freya Graffham does all the work. She’s the first to take disappearances seriously and to see a possible connection, she has only recently moved to Lafferton from London, and she has fallen in love with Serailler and wants to impress him with her work. But (and this is a big “but”), I didn’t get an inkling why such an admirable and clever young woman would fall for her boss. He’s supposed to be enigmatic, but we don’t get anything to work with. This guy is bland and cliché all the way, as many characters in the book. Too bad that after 400 lazy pages into the plot (I was skimming by then), Hills decides to fold up and leave abruptly, [spoiler alert!] by killing her most interesting character! By that time I had long since guessed who the killer was, so she was really adding insult to injury in resolving the mystery.

No chance that I will follow DI Serailler any further, but I’m always on the lookout for a good English countryside mystery. As I have enjoyed Lewis’ Oxford mysteries on DVDs quite a bit, I should probably try Morse. Any recommendations?

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