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One of the really great things about an idea like the book exchange site ReaditSwap is it gives you a chance to try out authors you might not have read before, with only limited risk. Id never read any of Susan Hills books, but thought Id try one in exchange for one of my books. If this is the normal standard of her writing, I can safely say Ill be reading more in future!
On the face of it, The Various Haunts doesnt have a great deal to set it apart from other books in the crime genre. It features a police hunt for a serial killer and looks at events from the perspective of both the killer and the key characters.
What does make it different, though, is the attention to detail and the characters that inhabit the world Hill creates. The characters actually feel like real people and we find out an awful lot about them, but gradually. This helps to really ground the book in reality and, in no time at all, you find yourself completely immersed in their world. More importantly, because Hill spends a lot of time building up the characters, we do actually care about them. Many of the characters are there for no other reason than to be killed at some point. Yet Hill doesnt treat them this way. Her minor victim characters are just as fleshed out and real as the others who are obviously going to be cropping up in future novels. For this reason, it really does come as a shock when someone is killed. It also helps to create a real feeling of helplessness and danger. Its often obvious to us that a character is in peril, but you hope you are wrong, because its like witnessing the murder of a friend or acquaintance. Its quite an achievement, and I have to say that The Various Haunts achieves an emotional intensity far greater than most other police/crime books.
The plot is also a strong element behind the books success. It is well-written and interesting, gradually drip-feeding you information as you try and second guess who the murderer is. At times, it almost feels like you are involved in the police investigation. Its clear from a very early stage that something is wrong and you can put some of the pieces together. Yet, because of the gradual revelations, you can never quite see the whole picture tantalising and frustrating in equal measure! The book is actually quite long (over 500 pages in the paperback edition), yet because of the interesting storyline, strong, human characters and well-written text, it never feels a chore to read. Instead, youll find yourself racing through the pages trying to find out the fate of the characters youve come to know and the identity of the murderer.
Stylistically, Hill plays around with conventions and doesnt leave the revelation of the murderers identity to the final few pages. Instead, with around 150 pages to go, she drops a massive hint as to who it is and then, with 100 pages left, actually reveals it. At this point, I began to wonder how on earth the book could justify another 100 pages now that the mystery was solved. The book, however shifts focus, and starts to look at the motives behind the murders and focuses in on just a couple of the characters. Its a brave decision and could have backfired badly. In fact, it gives the book a new impetus. If anything, youll devour the rest of the book even quicker, hungry to see how it all resolves itself.
The ending itself is stunning. It has to be one of the most powerful endings I have read in recent years. Its incredibly tense and delivers a real sucker punch that will leave you reeling at the audacity of it. Like the rest of the book, it is a surprisingly emotional ending that, as the title suggests, will haunt you for a while after youve read it. Yet for all that, the ending is incredibly realistic far more plausible than the ending which, I suspect, most authors would have opted for.
The book ends with some loose ends still flapping around and many unanswered questions. The motives of the killer, for example, are kind of explained, but not made totally explicit. Some people will find this frustrating (normally, Id be one of them!). If you like nice, neatly tied up endings, then youll be left with a lot of questions and not many answers. Yet, in my opinion, this serves to make the book more life-like. After all, sometimes we are reduced to guesswork and never find out why certain people did certain things. Some of the loose ends, I suspect, will be picked up in future titles featuring these characters.
My only other slight concern (and this may well be me reading too much into it) is that there appeared to be a slightly racist undertone at times. There is only one black character in the book (although since this takes place in a sleepy English village, this is entirely feasible). Yet, although hes one of the good guys, hes also the only one who appears to come from an under-privileged background. I found this slightly stereotypical, as I did the implication that had he not become a cop, he would have ended up on the other side of the law. Virtually every time he is described, there are references to his ugly monkey-like face. I found this slightly disturbing, reminding me of the monkey chants black sportsmen used to have to endure.
At heart, The Various Haunts of Men is a deeply readable, compelling book. OK, so it doesnt particularly have anything new to offer, but its combination of deeply human characters, readable style and interesting plot makes it well worth reading.
The Various Haunts of Men
ISBN: 978-0099462095 (paperback)
Available from Amazon for £5.49 (new) or 1p(!) (used)
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