[The following contains mild plot spoilers.]
I had not read any of Susan Hill’s fiction before I began The Various Haunts of Men (2005), but I had vaguely assumed that Hill was a thoroughly conservative novelist, who only contributed to literary genres with an established middlebrow appeal. Her novel The Woman in Black (1982) rides that weary old carthorse, the Victorian ghost story, and she penned a sequel to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca entitled Mrs de Winter (1993). The Various Haunts ostensibly appropriates the format and conventions of the modern detective novel: an overwhelmingly English setting; lives of cosy domesticity disrupted by gruesome skulduggery; a detective guided by intuition; a chirpy but capable working-class sidekick; clues and red herrings aplenty; and a plot which cites a single issue of contemporary interest (in this case, the popularity of complementary medicine) as a theme.
In matching an enigmatic detective and a reclusive psychopath, Hill demonstrates a wondrous laziness, and her novel resorts to clichés which would embarrass the scriptwriters of The Bill. The Various Haunts evokes a dead world in which nothing original is described, and the novel at times resembles a detailed description of an ITV television drama. The dialogue is dreadful, and, when speaking, all of her characters sound wooden and they converse about exclusively practical things. At the beginning of the novel, the narrative is littered with glaringly plain metaphors: “This house fitted its occupants and they the house – like hands fitted gloves”; “It would be easy to give in, to process people through the surgery likes cans on a conveyer belt”; and, most amateurishly of all, “…patches of scrub and bramble which lie like body hair…”.
For over two hundred pages, the novel drifts listlessly, as we follow various unconnected storylines. We encounter a collection of apparently duplicate women – Freya Graffham, Cat Deerbon, Karin McCafferty – and although they are respectively a policewoman, a doctor, and a cancer patient, they speak and think in the same mechanical, practical way, reminding one vaguely of a Bret Easton Ellis novel in which all of the characters are indistinguishable and merely an extension of scenery and mood. Hill’s characters are limited, hopeless, and dowdy, with unremarkable homes, lives, and ambitions. Their pursuits – choral singing, bringing up children, or complementary medicine – have a curiously practical application, and merely fill empty minds. Three hundred and fifty pages in, however, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an absolutely riotous séance, in which dogs are literally and figuratively let off the leash. Some quick and deft plotting follows and although the reader will always be significantly ahead of the police investigation, the novel ends with a vicious and unexpected conclusion, which is very powerful but which vaguely seems like something of a stunt.
It will transpire that the entire novel is merely a convoluted introduction to Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, although Serrailler is only mobilised from his office hibernation during the final pages of the novel and he does little to contribute to the police investigation. He is not a character to inspire sympathy. His father is essentially a eugenicist who aspired to rear a perfect family of doctors, and he was devastated when Simon ran away to arts college and a subsequent daughter was born without her wits. The Serrailler family is a sort of Brahmin cast, and their dinner parties are a display of dynastic elitism: a little market-town master race. Simon is an illustrator rather than an artist, and the descriptions of his tonal studies of Venice sound pretty grim. “Drawing keeps me sane,” he proclaims, although one may dismiss this as a bourgeois affectation. He befriends women solely out of a desire for plutonic companionship and inadvertently leaves behind a trail of broken hearts (the only sex scene in the novel is imagined by a hysteric).
The epiphany of Hill’s D.S. Freya Graffham would furnish a fitting epigraph to the world of Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders:
Middle England, traditional values. Don’t knock it, don’t ever knock it, she thought. This is what we have come from, at bottom, this is what we are, and this is absolutely what we… are here to cherish and protect.
The real mystery at the heart of The Various Haunts is whether this is sincere or deadpan, and whether Susan Hill regards the established conventions of detective fiction with reverence or contempt. Although Ruth Rendell’s approval is cited on the cover (“I loved this book. Masterly and satisfying…”), the novel begins with a character named Angela Randall disappearing at a local secluded spot named “the Hill” – perhaps a sign that Hill has identified a literary rival and aims to gobble her up, or possibly that the conventions of Rendell’s fiction will be murdered in Hill’s novel. Hill’s psychopath despairs of Randall:
…I loathed that silly bitch more than most. She had no pride, you see, she lay at my feet like a bitch on heat, she sent me messages full of vile language, fawning and clinging and yielding.
Masterly and satisfying! The Various Haunts is a novel of profound banality, but it is far from straightforwardly banal and it has a decidedly murderous edge. After describing the lives of various characters, half of them are butchered like swine, and the psychopath slices them up as coldly and dispassionately as Hill describes their lives. The deaths of the psychopath’s victims do not seem particularly important, and nothing in the novel refutes his moral that, “those I kill die to benefit mankind… She is of far greater value dead than she ever was alive, you know.” The psychopath’s detachment from life is echoed in Serrailler’s removal from human passions, and the novel’s shock ending demonstrates that the difference between the psychopath and Serrailler is quantitative rather than qualitative. Both Freya and Karin are apparently hypnotised by the psychopath and simply grind to a halt at the sound of his voice, and, significantly, Freya experiences the same helplessness when dining with Simon. Their mouse souls fail once they look into the cat’s eyes. The three of them – Hill, Serrailler, and the psychopath – are as thick as thieves, and in their cold, heartless intelligence, they are accomplices in murder.