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It's been a long time since the last Simon Serailler police novel; too long in fact. Thankfully, author Susan Hill has now returned to a character who may be a relatively recent creation, but who has quickly established himself as a fan favourite.
And his return comes not a moment too soon, since the cathedral town of Lafferton is now home to a serial killer who preys on prostitutes. When two go missing, Serailler has to try and hunt down the killer whilst battling a hostile press seeking to stir up public feeling against him.
There's a good reason why the Simon Serailler crime thrillers are so popular; and that reason is because they are not really crime thrillers at all. Oh sure, if you boil them down to absolute basics they contain all the genre staples: a murder, a determined, but beleaguered policeman, a frustrating chase for clues and, finally, the unveiling of the criminal and serving of justice.
But boiling the plot down like that is rather like saying the Bible tells story of some bloke who did some nice things for people before he died. In other words, it's only part of the story. Whilst the Simon Serailler novels make for a perfectly satisfactory and highly interesting police thriller, they offer so much more. Indeed, at times, they are more like a soap opera. We spend as much time examining the personal life of Serailler and his close-knit family as we do trying to track down the killer and following up leads. As such, we become completely embroiled in the lives of the characters, caught up in the dull minutiae of their daily lives, sharing their hopes, fears and petty prejudices.
These two very different aspects to the book (police thriller and kitchen sink drama) mean that it will appeal to two very different (but large!) audiences. On the one level, the police storyline contains enough murders, cliff-hangers and twists and turns to satisfy your crime reader. It might not concentrate on the forensic aspects of investigations in the way that (say) CSI does, but it's detailed enough to be convincing and satisfying. The family issues Serrailler has to deal with simply provide a bit of context to what makes him tick.
At the same time, it will appeal to those who like family dramas. Even if you're not particularly keen on crime thrillers, the fascinating lives of the key characters makes the police interludes readable - they can simply be interpreted as episodes where we see the characters at work instead of home.
In other words, for one set of readers, this is a fascinating police thriller with occasional bits of family drama; for another it's a family drama with occasional bits of police stuff.
Whichever camp you fall into (or indeed, if you fall into neither), you will find an enjoyable and readable book. Possibly Hill's main strength as an author is her ability to capture human nature so well; to take people who don't exist and draw them so convincingly that you find it impossible to believe that they don't exist somewhere.
Hill's other great strength is in constructing a brilliantly written narrative, employing a highly readable style that will quickly have you hooked. Mrs SWSt commented that she knew this was going to be a good book when she found herself addicted to it within about 10 pages of starting it. I know exactly what she meant. There's an indefinable quality about it; it's the kind of book where you can't just read a couple of pages, you have read one more; and then one more; and then one more... and before you know it, you've finished the whole thing. If the pesky need to go to work hadn't got in the way, I would have read this book in one sitting. As it was, I couldn't wait to get home to pick it up again. It's so addictive it should carry a government health warning.
Sure the central murder mystery is not that hard to work out and we both sussed out who the guilty party was well before the end. That's not the point, though. This is one of those books where the journey as much fun as the destination. Even when you're pretty certain you've worked it all out, you keep reading... just to make sure you're right! Admittedly, for those who enjoy incredibly complex murder mysteries, full of regular (often unlikely) twists, this might be a little too simplistic. For those of us who just like a well-written, entertaining book, it fits the bill perfectly.
You also have to accept that this is now the 5th book in the Serailler series and if you start with this one you won't get as much out of it. At a pinch it could be read as a standalone story, but you would miss out on an awful lot. Such a lot has happened in the lives of these characters over the course of the four previous books (love, death, illness etc.) and these developments have inevitably shaped the way they think and feel. If you read Shadows in the Street without having read previous entries, you will definitely feel you have parachuted into the middle of a tale (which, of course, in some ways, you have). The assumption is that if you are reading this, you have read the earlier books - and I think that's a perfectly reasonable assumption for an author to make.
I started this review by saying that it had been a long wait between Serailler 4 and 5 and feel a slight sense of sadness now that, having finished this one. Thankfully, number 6 (the excellent A Betrayal of Trust) is already available, so if you wish, you can move straight on without a break to find out more about the lives of these extraordinarily ordinary characters.
The Shadows in the Street
Chatto & Windus, 2010
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012