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Friday, November 23, 2018

The Comforts of Home by Susan Hill

Overlook Press, 320 ages, $26.95

I have to admit right from the start that I skipped the last Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler mystery in the series because I had gotten tired of our hero’s whining (or whinging, if you’re British). He finds it difficult to commit to a romantic relationship, tortures himself with philosophical and artistic dilemmas, and rummages among his many spanners to find a suitable one to throw into whatever his current works are.

But I love Susan Hill, so of course I came back, whether she wanted me to or not. There’s still a bit of whining and ineffective introspection by various characters in the ninth book in her series, “The Comforts of Home,” but I enjoyed returning to the cozy and murderous town of Lafferton, England, which is not to imply that this is a cozy series. It’s not.

Have you read Ann Cleeves? Besides her wonderful creation, Vera Stanhope, she has a series set in the Shetland Islands with police detective Jimmy Perez. Jimmy Perez is a less despondent version of Simon Serrailler, but they are both brooding heroes. And in “The Comforts of Home,” part of the action takes place on the darkly brooding Scottish island of Taransay. (This island, according to Wikipedia, in reality hosts vacationers but has no permanent population. Nevertheless, it’s darkly brooding and heavily atmospheric, I’m sure.) 

And how about Peter May’s Fin Macleod, police inspector on an Outer Hebridies island? He’s pretty dark and brooding, too.

These series and heroes share a similar disposition because it suits both the place and genre. More Scottish power to them, I say. And more miserable, windy, rainy, gloomy Scottish weather, as well.

But this review is neither for a Cleeves’ book or one by May. Susan Hill — a skilled practitioner in the art of setting a pregnant and spooky scene — has put her brain to working a mystery on an isolated island (returning to the scene of the fifth book in the series, “The Shadows in the Street,” and mis-marketed as “Tallansay”) as well as one on the more familiar streets of Lafferton.

On Taransay, someone has shot popular resident Sandy Murdoch. She arrived only a couple of years previously, but she had made friends and shown her commitment to pitching in and helping the community. But her past lies in shadow, and perhaps someone has reached out of her past to murder her. Simon, who is on leave in Taransay recovering from a grievous wound, is drafted to assist the local police. He liked Sandy and would very much like to find her killer.

Meanwhile, back home. Simon’s chief, Kieran Bright, has married Simon’s triplet sister, Cat. Cat is a doctor, was widowed young, has been and is raising three older children. Kieran seems to fit right in. There's too much happiness on that homefront, so Richard, Simon and Cat’s grumpy, snobbish, demanding father, re-enters the picture. He had exiled himself to France to escape the gossip of people after charges of rape were leveled against him. Now he’s baa-ack. And living in Cat and Kieran’s house. Needless to say, Chief Bright does not look kindly on the old fart.

Kieran is dealing with a plague of arson attacks around Lafferton. In the midst of that aggro, the mother of a girl gone missing five years ago pesters the police to reopen her daughter’s cold case. Kieran has no personnel to spare, so he pulls Simon out of his convalescence to look at the case file. In his steadfast and meticulous manner, Simon might find a crack or two not yet explored.

There are shots, there is fire, there is anger, there are tears. This is a dramatic series without much humor, but with a lot of inner turmoil by all parties. Soap opera cum crime novel. But Susan Hill can really weave the mysterious into a mystery by combining atmosphere, menace, turbulent emotions, and the pull of obligation.

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