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The Risk of Darkness is Susan Hill's third and (to date) final book set in Lafferton and featuring police detective Simon Serailler. It very much follows on from the second book and concludes many of its plot lines.
In truth, this feels very much like a "winding up" book; as though Hill is tying up all the loose ends and putting her characters in positions where it will be very difficult for her to revisit Lafferton any time soon. There's a slightly tired, unoriginal feeling to it, as though Hill is anxious to get this book over with as soon as possible.
One of the reasons the book is a disappointment is the characters. The previous books in the series were full of interesting characters, refreshingly free of the usual genre stereotypes. Previously, the characters all felt very real and very natural. Their characteristics, contradictory nature and relationships with other characters were all instantly identifiable and human,thereby making them fascinating to read about. The third book is so intent on "neutralising" the characters that they start to act very much out of character and in an unrealistic fashion. Key characters from earlier books are sidelined and hardly feature and one of the characters doesn't appear at all! This is a shame, because Hill has spent two whole books carefully building up very nuanced characters, and then proceeds to spend much of the third book destroying those efforts.
The plot is not as instantly engaging, either. The plots of the first two books were slow burning and highly natural - to the point where some of them were left unresolved. Risk's plot feels a little more forced. The continuing plot line (which carries on from where the second book left off) is very interesting, but a large part of that is because you have already invested considerable time in it, and so there is a natural desire to see how it pans out. Other aspects of the plot are disappointing. The main new plot development in Risk appears rather silly and unlikely. Surrounding the grief of a husband whose wife has died, it seems strained and isn't particularly engaging. It also rather fizzles out in a slightly unsatisfactory manner - as though the author herself can't even be bothered finishing it properly!
Other aspects of the plot also lack the sense of originality which set The Various Haunts of Men and The Pure in Heart apart from other crime novels. How many books have we read or how many films have we seen in which the central characters are becoming disillusioned with the lives and their jobs? After two books where she carefully avoided such stereotypes, it's disappointing to see someone of Hill's calibre succumb to them.
Hill also falls into the trap of thinking that, in order to keep her characters fresh, she needs to take them out of their normal environment. One of the key strengths of the first two books was that the events mostly occurred in a single place. This allowed her to investigate the effect of the crimes on the local community and helped us to feel part of that community and share in their shock and grief. Here, Serailler keeps making repeated trips to various areas of the country - to London, to Yorkshire etc. This dilutes that sense of belonging and creates a far more run of the mill atmosphere in which it becomes more difficult to care about the characters or their lives.
Don't get me wrong. The Risk of Darkness is not a bad book. Indeed, it's still an enjoyable read. Hill has lost none of her story telling abilities, and her writing style is hugely readable. Those who have read the first two books (and you will have needed to, or this one won't make any sense!) will find the familiar setting and characters instantly engaging and interesting and you'll want to get through it as quickly as possible to find out how it all ends. It's just that, in comparison with the first two in the series, this one is a disappointment. It lacks that spark of originality, that sense of excitement that comes from genuinely not knowing how everything is going to end.
On the other hand, perhaps it's just a case of familiarity breeds contempt. Either way, Hill seems to have decided to leave Lafferton for a while at least, and I think that is a good decision. She needs to take a step back and wait until she can re-discover the aspects which made the first two books such a breath of fresh air.
The Risk of Darkness
Vintage New Edition, 2006
Available new from Amazon for £4.89 or second hand from £1.68
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