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The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill is the first of the Simon Serrailler mysteries.  Hill has written countless other books of fiction, non-fiction and a few children's books in addition to the Serrailler mysteries.  This is the first book by Hill that I've read.  Before I go on, I have a confession to make.  About halfway through the book in the midst of a (failed) quest to find the proper pronunciation of the surname Serrailler (I hate it when there are words or names with ambiguous or unclear pronunciations in a book!) I read a spoiler regarding a central character's fate, and it nearly spoiled the entire book for me, and for a split second I considered ditching the book entirely.  However, denial is a wonderful thing sometimes, and then the next girl went missing, and the story picked up immediately with this development, and I decided I had to finish it because I had to know who the culprit was and maybe that really bad thing doesn't really happen to that character?  I also read that the second Serrailler book is better so I'm still on the fence about whether I'll actually read through the series or not.

Hill is a British author and the story is set in Britain.  Specifically it is set in the small city/town of Lafferton.  The dialog is light on the British dialect too depending on the character who's speaking.  The story follows multiple threads of narrative among various residents of Lafferton, among them, Simon's sister, who's a local doctor who cares deeply for her patients.  A close reader who pays attention to the clues set forth by the chapters from the perspective of the culprit will deduce his/her identity long before the story comes right out and reveals it.

Unbeknownst to Simon and greater Lafferton, an anonymous and previously unknown serial killer stalks the residents of the town.  When DS Freya Graffham, a new arrival to both Lafferton and its police force, catches a missing persons case that yields few leads, few clues and a blank picture of the solitary, private missing woman who left no family or friends, Graffham knows there's something more sinister to the disappearance.  However, absent concrete evidence to this end, her superior won't let her waste more resources on a case that is going no where fast.  Instead Graffham continues working the case in her spare time and off hours based on her instinct that there is something buried beneath the surface.  A look into past unsolved missing persons cases in Lafferton yields a few more cases of missing persons with tenuous similarities to Graffham's current case.  A pattern soon begins to take shape: of people who disappear while out for a walk alone on the Hill in Lafferton, people who are never seen again.

In the subplots of the various residents' stories a theme in which New Age, alternative medicine and its effectiveness is examined as well as the various charlatans that prey upon the vulnerable people seeking cures for various ailments.  How does this connect to the disappeared?

One quibble I have with this novel is that while it is billed as a Serrailler mystery, the man himself is on the back burner, and he is rarely seen and thus remains an enigma even by novel's end.  This is frustrating because the reader wants to know more about him.  However, Freya Graffham is clearly the star of this story while the series headliner plays a minor supporting role.  Even Serrailler's sister has a larger role than he does.

Hill crafts a slow burning mystery that is as much about the disappeared and the serial killer as it is about examining alternative medicine and the residents of Lafferton connected in various ways to the Serrailler family.  One can't help but fear that the calculating, diabolical person responsible for the disappearances is someone familiar or close to the Serrailler family, a family steeped in the medical profession.

The heart pounding climax is followed by a nail biting, sad ending.  The characters, even minor characters, are vividly drawn and the reader feels they know something of them, except for Simon Serrailler who remains an opaque, enigmatic and flat character.  Everything we know about him is second hand, shared in dialog or conversation between other characters rather than learned by seeing the story through his eyes and experience.  For this reason, considering the novel is called a Simon Serrailler mystery and is one of a series of Serrailler mysteries, I'm disappointed and feel as if it's false advertising to call it a Serrailler mystery.  As a result I feel rather ambiguous or indifferent towards this novel.  It is available for borrowing in county.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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