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Susan Hill's fictional policeman Simon Serrailler has quickly established himself as a fan favourite and a breath of fresh air in murder mysteries. Many modern entries in the genre tend to have a body count in the hundreds, a range of wacky serial killers and troubled policemen with issues so the more sedate pace of Hill's books are a welcome change. Dead bodies are normally relatively limited and whilst Simon Serrailler may face family issues, they are the sort of normal problems that many of us face each day and not outlandish quirks designed to draw attention.
In this seventh novel, Serrailler is hunting for an accomplished killer who preys on old ladies. When three victims are found in quick succession, the pressure is on Serrailler and his team to find the killer. The trouble is; the secret to the murderer's identity lies in the past and getting access to the information he needs to crack the case is not going to be easy.
Although nominally crime novels, the Serrailler books have always been as much about the extended Serrailler family as they are about murder. This has been a strength of previous entries, adding an extra dimension and layer of emotion which contrasts with the savagery and frustration of the murders and the police investigations.
In this latest novel, however, it's overplayed. There's always been an element of the soap opera about the Serrailler novels, but it actually starts to take over in this book. The putative main character (Simon Serrailler) doesn't even put in an appearance until around page 70 (up until then the focus is on his sister Cat); whilst the first murder doesn't happen for another 50 pages or so after that. Up to this point, the story is taken up with tying up loose ends left over from the previous novel, introducing some plot elements that will become important later on and looking at the soap opera that is Serrailler family life.
The trouble is that the latter element is starting to dominate. And, like any soap opera, the storylines are growing more and more elaborate (and hence more and more unrealistic) to top what has happened previously. There's one entire subplot (surrounding a film casting) that just feels completely false and ultimately fizzles out into nothing. Whilst Hill uses this to shine a light on an aspect of family life (sibling rivalry), there are far more effective and realistic ways that she could have made the same points.
The trouble with all this extra stuff is it slows down the pace. Whilst it is interesting to read, you do start to wish that Hill would get on with what you have paid to read - a murder mystery. Thankfully, once she has tied up the loose ends and set up the new plot, the pace starts to pick up considerably.
From this point onwards in particular, the book is insanely readable. Hill has a very interesting style that makes you want to keep reading. She builds in regular plot developments and creates interesting characters that you care about. She fleshes out these characters very well, so that when some of them become murder victims, you feel a genuine sorrow that such seemingly nice and innocent people have met such a violent end. This, in turn, helps you to understand Serrailler's drive and determination to track down the guilty party.
It's fair to say that A Question of Identity is not a particularly challenging book. I correctly identified the guilty party the very first time they appeared in the book and it's not particularly difficult to work out (particularly since the way the book is structured means you often have more information than the police). In that sense, A Question of Identity may disappoint if you are the sort who likes a murder mystery with lots of plot twists and the challenge of working out a difficult riddle. In another sense, however, it doesn't matter because at its heart, it's a well constructed mystery and an interesting book.
It's this last element which is the book's real strength. I simply did not want to stop reading. Hill has developed a very particular and readable style for her Serrailler books. Chapters are deliberately kept short, which encourages you to "just read one more". She regularly swaps the action between the murder mystery and the Serrailler family which adds variety, and she even provides some sections from the perspective of the murderer, giving the book a real cat and mouse feel, as they same events are seen from the view of the murderer and Serrailler.
This is one of those books that is just very entertaining. It might not be particularly clever, it might not offer much new and it might be a slightly slow starter. But despite all that, I couldn't put it down. At the end of the day, A Question of Identity is fun to read - and surely that's all you want from a book like this?
Bear in mind that this is the seventh book in the Serrailler series and you really do need to read the previous titles in order to get the most out of this. Whilst the murder mystery is a standalone plot, the woes of the Serrailler family are part of a broader, on-going arc, with frequent references to earlier events. These can't be taken in isolation, because they form an important part of the plot. The various experiences of the Serrailler family have affected and shaped their outlook, so you need to be aware of, and understand, what has happened to them in previous books.
Seven books in, I was slightly concerned that the Serrailler novels might run out of steam. Initially, with the elongated start, it looked as though some of those fears might be realised. Once the book gets going, however, A Question of Identity is just as strong as many of the previous entries in the series (though not quite up there with the best). If you have already read some Simon Serrailler novels, then you will enjoy this one. If you haven't, then go back to the first book (The Various Haunts of Men) and build your way up to this one. It will be worth the effort.
Currently available in Kindle or hardback, a new copy will cost around £10.
A Question of Identity
Chatto & Windus, 2012
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013