Sunday, July 28, 2013

Q is for A Question of Identity

Today, for the Crime Fiction Alphabet, I feature A Question of Identity (2012), a book by Susan Hill. The author, born in 1942, published her first novel at the age of eighteen. She is the author of The Woman in Black, a ghost story, but, according to this interview at The Guardian, she does not like to be pigeon-holed. In 2004, she published the first novel in the Simon Serrailler Crime Series.

This book begins with a trial. A man has been accused of killing several elderly women in their homes. Although everyone, even the jury, is convinced that he is the killer, he is freed because of the questionable evidence of the only eye witness. Because public opinion is so heavily against him, and he will be in danger when released, he is given a new identity. And then, ten years later, the same type of crimes begin happening in a different area, the British town of Lafferton, and the crimes are assigned to Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler and his team.

This is a police procedural where the extended family of the policeman plays a large part in the story. It is a part of a seven book series by Susan Hill. Even though the series is named for Simon Serrailler, in many of the books, Serrailler is not the most prominent character.  And, though the crimes and crime solving feature in this book from the beginning, at times they take a back seat to the family issues.

This is a difficult review to write because I was disappointed in this book and I don't want to turn readers away from this series. Looking back, I truly loved the first few books in the series and was just as happy for Simon to be in the background. His love life is always complicated, he is an artist, and he is very self-centered. Not unpleasant, just not your most lovable protagonist. I rated the first five books very highly, so what has changed now?

This book is not comfortable reading. It is not filled with graphic violence, but it does concern a serial killer. Although the descriptions were handled well, they were the types of crimes that bother me from a personal standpoint, so left me feeling tense, anxious. I mainly point this out to show that these are not cozies by any stretch of the imagination, even if there is a lot of family interaction going on. The family issues aren't that pleasant either.

On the positive side, Susan Hill writes beautifully. The book has been a pleasure to read and engrossing. The characters are well developed. I just was not into the story and spent too much time thinking about what I did not like.

I am growing weary of the complicated lives of the Serrailler family and the melodramatic stories with resolutions left dangling at the end of each book. If I am going to read about family issues, I want some form of resolution by the end of the book. I like Susan Hill's ability to build characters, but I would like to see more focus on the secondary characters related to the crimes and less on family members.

I guessed the culprit early on. I don't mind when that happens, but in this case there were no other suspects. Either Hill was going to throw a culprit in at the last minute (not fair at all) or this one was the only option. So the mystery is lacking in mysterious elements, and the "how they find him" wasn't very convincing either.

The name of the book, A Question of Identity, points to one theme in this book. What is our identity, and can we ever change who we are? That may be the most interesting part of the book, when we get the serial killer's perspective on what has happened to him and who he is now. And other characters are faced with issues of identity and change in their lives.

In regard to this series, I recommend that you try earlier books. Because of the development of the family issues over time, the reader can benefit from reading them in order, but I do think each book gives enough clues so that this is not necessary. I will read the next book in this series, although I doubt if I will rush out to pay for the US hardcover edition (as I did for this one).

Lest I have driven some readers away from this series unfairly, here are comments from Allan Massie at The Scotsman, who has a very high opinion of her novels. The first one is from his review of the sixth in the series, The Betrayal of Trust:
While she never forgets that people read novels for pleasure, and is adept at providing that pleasure, she uses fiction to examine difficult ethical questions about the choices people make and the constraints within which such choices are made. That is why reading these novels, which combine good plots with well-drawn characters and intelligent probing of the way we live now, is so enriching.
And, from his review of A Question of Identity, at Susan Hill's website:
This is Susan Hill's most thrillingly imagined crime novel to date. ... The crime part of the novel is very good. But as in all these books, we are also engaged in the continuing story of the Serrailler family. All this gives the novel a much richer texture than is usual in crime fiction.
I am also including other reviews. Some reviewers have similar complaints to mine... but other reviewers loved this book.
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter.

25 comments:

  1. Tracy - Thank you for your honest and thorough review. Like you, I don't go in for really graphic violence. And I do prefer to try to work out who the culprit is rather than be able to guess right away unless it's a specific kind of novel. I think I'll wait on this one...

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    1. Margot, these novels are a strange mixture of dark elements, and family relationships (not that those cannot be dark). Maybe I am tiring of the "formula" of these novels, but this one just did not do it for me.

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  2. I like the cover! maybe if the library has them....

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    1. Peggy, all the US cover have dark, foreboding covers. Very stylish and gloomy.

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  3. Susan Hill's books seem to be a mixed bag with readers. I was curious about her books but from the sounds of it, I may not be all that interested now. I am a reader who cares very little for pages devoted to family members when it could be better used to solve a crime or go into the investigative side of the crime. Granted, there are some writers who can weave both the crime story and the personal lives of their characters very well but I find that skill few and far between. Thanks for your honest and thoughtful review. I always say you can have beautiful prose all day long and be boring as all get out. I read to be entertained.

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    1. Keishon, if you don't want many pages devoted to family and personal issues, this series is definitely not for you.

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  4. TracyK: Thanks for an interesting review. Your anguish over the book reminded me of a recent read where many elements were present I like in a book. Unfortunately, it did not work for me. While praised heavily by others I could not join in the acclaim.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. It was a struggle, since I had really liked the previous books in this series. If there had not been a couple of other reviews where readers had similar experiences, I would have thought it was just my mood of the moment.

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  5. Tracy, you found the book "engrossing" in spite of your disappointment with the story. I often feel that way about novels that I really wished I'd liked more than I did. I have heard of Susan Hill but not read any of her books.

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    1. Prashant, it was a strange experience. When I was not reading the book, I was complaining about it. But I had no reluctance to continue reading or finish the book. She is a great storyteller, I just wanted her to tell me a different story.

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  6. Tracy, I've read the first four in this series and agree that Susan Hill writes beautifully and is a great storyteller. However, by the end of the fourth book I was rather tired of all the doom and gloom, the serious illnesses as well as the murders and the book left me feeling very uncomfortable. Although I have the fifth book, The Shadows in the Street, I couldn't face reading it and it has sat unread on the shelves now for two years. I initially liked the mix of crime and family issues, but by the fourth book I'd had enough. Maybe now two years later I could go back and read the fifth book.

    I'm sorry, but not surprised, to hear that The Question of Identity follows the same formula.

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    1. Margaret, glad to get your opinion on this. Maybe that will do the trick for me. To put more time between the books.

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  7. Thanks TracyK - I only really know her for he supernatural fiction so interested to hear about the series (if not this particular volume, which is clearly not the place to start) - cheers.

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    1. Yes, Sergio, definitely better to start at the beginning. She is a good writer but I am not much into supernatural fiction, so not too interested in trying her other other books. Although I think there is one set in World War I I had been interested in.

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  8. I think I read four of this series, Tracy, and bailed one book before you! I loved it when she started them, I was so looking forward to the series, bought h/backs as soon as they were out, but I slowly became less thrilled, and by the last one I read I thought 'no more'. And you haven't persuaded me to pick them up again! Very helpful review.

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    1. Moira, at least I know I am not the only one. I found the previous one less enchanting, but nowhere near as disappointing as this one.

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  9. I read The Woman in Black last year, and I loved her writing style. I'm going to have to hunt down the first book in this series and see what I think.

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    1. Ryan, her writing style is great, and this series is definitely worth trying. Starting at the beginning is best too. I would like to try The Woman in Black but I have heard it is quite scary.

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  10. Fence sitting again, I enjoyed your review, but probably wouldn't the book. Maybe one of the earlier ones, if time and money wasn't a factor, thanks.

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    1. Col, I don't blame you at all. The series is worth trying, but so are lots of other books and authors.

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  11. Thanks Tracy for mentionng my review! This book worked more as a thriller than a mystery for me. And also as I am not very familiar with Simon's family melodrama, it was all new to me and had some appeal.

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    1. Valli, I liked your review and it was good to see how someone who had not read previous books would enjoy the books.

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  12. Thanks for this review, it felt balanced and honest. I've read a couple of this series and neither of them particularly appealed to me. I had wondered whether it was because I'd read them out of order, but I have to say I agree with you that there's too much family drama and not enough crime-solving action for my liking!

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    1. Marie, Reading them in order probably does help, but the family drama and crime-solving are not well balanced in any of them. Sometimes the family drama is more interesting.

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