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The Betrayal of Trust is the latest in the Simon Serrailler series set in Lafferton and following the personal and professional life of the fictional policeman. When the body of a young girl is uncovered during flash floods in Lafferton, it is revealed to be that of a teenager who went missing 15 years earlier. When a second, unknown body is discovered close by, the case becomes even more serious. Despite being short on officers and faced with the frustration of trying to pick up such a cold case, Serrailler is determined to unearth the guilty party and bring justice to the families of both girls.
One of the benefits of being number six in a series is that the book can hit the ground running. Hill (reasonably enough) assumes that anyone reading The Betrayal of Trust will already be familiar with the main characters, their background and the events of previous books. As such she wastes no time providing any background information, but dives straight into Serrailler's new crime. From page one, the focus is on this book, this murder, what is happening in lives of the various characters now. As such, The Betrayal of Trust sets off at a cracking pace and never really lets up. It's one of those highly readable books that grabs the reader pretty much from the start and keeps their attention throughout.
The fact that it's not an interesting and slightly different story helps. Most murder novels focus on murders that have only just happened (or are still happening) or focus on colourful serial killers who enter into a battle of wits with a policeman. The reality of murders is rather more mundane. Many murders are accidental or opportunistic, rather than pre-meditated. Most killers do not enter into a battle of wits with the police, but rather live in constant dread that they will be found out and brought to account, no matter how long it is since the crime was committed. The Betrayal of trust makes clever use of all of these aspects and so serves up a police tale that is rather different from the standard genre fare.
Hill skilfully weaves layer upon layer to make the plot even more intriguing. Seemingly unconnected elements are introduced (even in the long term many of these are of only tangential interest to the main plotline). The trick is to work out which bits are crucial to the plot and which are there to add colour. The important thing, though, is that all the elements blend together well to add depth and makes the people and places come to life. One of the key strengths of The Betrayal of Trust (and all Serrailler novels) is that Lafferton seems so real. You feel as though you could get in your car, programme your SatNav and, within just a few hours, be walking the streets of Lafferton yourself.
Although The Betrayal of Trust (like all the Serrailler novels) is billed as police fiction, in reality this is just a convenient label and there is much more to it than that. If you expect a standard police thriller you will probably be sorely disappointed. Arguably, The Betrayal of Trust is as much a soap opera as a murder-mystery. It focuses as much on Serrailler's relationships with his family and his own messed-up love live as it does on the murder plot. And if you're expecting Serrailler or his family to be a group of screwed up alcoholics, drug users or murderers (as so often turns out to be the case in murder thrillers), then forget it. Serrailler's family are about as normal and boring as they come. Sure, they have their ups and downs; they occasionally squabble amongst themselves and argue, but on the whole, their lives are just as mundane and routine as those of you and I.
This is what by the soap opera feel. At times, you feel as though the fact that Serrailler is a policeman investigating a murder is almost an incidental detail and that the domestic life is far more important. Even though nothing particularly exciting or out of the ordinary happens to any of them, you somehow find yourself caught up in it all, fascinated by the dull minutiae of their ordinary lives. It adds a richness, depth and colour to the Serrailler novels that is all too often missing from police fiction.
The main exception is the increasingly dull love life of Serrailler. This has always been one of the weakest parts of the series, but his constant finding/losing the love of his life and his emotional sterility is starting to irritate and is the one area of soap opera style plotting that I wish Hill would lose.
Yet, there is more to Lafferton than just the Serrailler family and, in a brave move, Hill even ignores them for some fairly lengthy periods of the book to focus instead on some of the characters that make up one of a number of different sub-plots. This again adds to the sense of richness and texture, to the idea that Lafferton is a real place filled with real people facing up to the problems that life throws at them on a daily basis. OK, so some of these sub-plots are connected to other aspects; but some are not. In total there are at least four different plots on-going at any one time, and it's credit to Hill's style that she manages to weave in and out of these effortlessly, without ever losing the reader.
Unfortunately, this does lead to some problems come the book's end. I'm not one of those people who expects a neat ending where everything is wrapped up in time for tea and buns. I fully recognise that real life is full of dangling, unresolved loose ends and making use of this in a novel can be very powerful. However, Hill rather takes it to extremes here. Of the four main plot strands, only one is fully resolved by the end - and even this is done very suddenly, with almost indecent haste. Arguably, it also raises just as many questions as it answers. In other words, just as the book starts to get *really* interesting, it ends!
Having invested so much in the storyline and the characters, it was disappointing to see them fizzle out with scarcely a whimper. Hill raises some interesting moral, ethical and religious points through the plot, but then completely fails to answer any of them. OK, they are complex issues with no straight (or easy) answers, but it's highly frustrating that Hill never really has her characters address them directly It's almost as though she is afraid that if she has her characters express a definite opinion, she might be seen to be endorsing a particular viewpoint herself; something which potentially (given the sensitive subject matter of parts of the book) could lose her readers.
Still, let's not be too harsh because up until the abrupt and disappointing ending, The Betrayal of Trust is a cracking book. It grabs you from the start, never lets go and keeps you interested for almost 400 pages. It mashes together a whole range of complex issues, ideas and plot strands, mixing police thriller with kitchen drama and somehow melds them together into a highly readable book.
The Betrayal of Trust
Chatto & Windus, 2011
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012