Oh, I do enjoy the conceit of the English country novel. It’s second only to the Agatha Christie country house detective. In these stories, it’s not the policework or even the mystery that matters so much as the effect of the crimes on the collective psyche of the town in which they take place. Lafferton, the setting of The Various Haunts of Men is a cathedral town. Simon Serrailler describes it as "a jumped up market town", just big enough that not everyone knows everyone else, but the degrees of separation must be pretty close. It’s the kind of community that would be shocked by a murder. Except a murder isn’t what they get here: instead, three women (and a man, though his disappearance apparently isn’t noticed) go missing over the span of several weeks. The police aren’t even certain foul play is involved until very far into the book—but thanks to our privileged position, we know we’re dealing with a serial killer obsessed with conducting post mortems.
Susan Hill balances the relationships of Lafferton’s inhabitants with monologues and meditations by the serial killer. As a result, we get to know the antagonist well. She exposes the various traumas and events that triggered his latent urges. Gradually, she connects the dots until his identity is obvious. Whether one guesses the killer’s identity before its revelation or not, the actual identity is a betrayal of sorts. But it’s nothing next to the final twist in the plot.
One question I ponder whenever I’m reading a mystery novel is whether a good mystery must leave enough clues for the reader to solve it, if they are able. I would say no; although no longer my favourites, Sherlock Holmes has always held a special place in my heart—and, let’s face it, the stories are still popular and captivating—despite the fact that in almost every story, Holmes’ deductions rely on obscure clues that only he has noticed and connected. Yet I do enjoy books where it is at least theoretically possible for the reader to solve the murder, even if I don’t usually manage to do so. I happened to uncover the killer in this book before Hill revealed it, and I don’t consider that a flaw in the book’s design, though I am rather surprised by myself.
As for the big twist, which involves the protagonist, Freya Graffham, I saw that coming as well (albeit not as early as I saw the killer’s identity). I hoped I was wrong, and briefly following the events, I thought Hill might have faked me out. In the end, though, she indeed carried through. It’s a decision that no doubt alienates just as many readers as it captivates. Good. Don’t do anything by halves.
These are all just party tricks, though. The substance of The Various Haunts of Men is Hill’s rich portrayal of the relationships between the main and minor characters. She builds up a network of friends and acquaintances of each of the victims. Everyone seems to know Cat Deerbon, even if she isn’t their GP, and her budding concern over the rise of unregulated "complementary therapists" proves to be a major plot point. Hence, while someone like Karin McCafferty isn’t directly related to the mystery part of the novel, her involvement is an opportunity for Hill to demonstrate how Cat navigates the difficult waters of doctor-patient counsel. I found this part of the book very interesting, and it’s one of the reasons I got hooked.
Freya’s unrequited love for Simon was less interesting. I felt very sorry for Freya, because she is head-over-heels, and I couldn’t help but think that, inevitably, Simon was going to end up hurting her. However, this aspect of the book is very one-sided. For a novel that is apparently the first in Simon’s series, he is just barely a main character, and the narrator certainly keeps Simon’s cards close to his chest. Most of what we know about Simon comes instead from what others, particularly his sister, divulge about him to Freya.
This penchant for telling rather than showing is perhaps the flaw to The Various Haunts of Men that haunts me. Hill proves herself skilled in crafting intricate webs of characters and circumstance, creating a potent mystery that sticks with the reader. Her descriptions leave something to be desired, sometimes, and she can go overboard with the exposition when her narrator gets on a roll. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to overlook this because of the style of the book, in which such lengthy depictions only contribute further to the unhurried, small town atmosphere that Hill is trying to create.
This is not a thriller, and while it involves murders, it is barely even a murder mystery to the characters within the story. For them it is simply a case of missing persons, with the reality that there is a serial killer among them only revealed very close to the end. From the reader’s better-informed perspective, though, this only heightens the tension. As the investigation becomes more complex, the killer starts to panic, to forget his rules that were supposed to set him apart from killers past. It’s interesting watching the killer unravel. Meanwhile, the other characters show themselves committed to their causes—whether it’s finding the killer or protecting innocents from being exploited by "psychic surgeons" and other quacks.
The Various Haunts of Men is an entertaining and enthralling book. Hill captures the charm of the stereotypical small English town and then plunges it into the dark abyss of the tortured human psyche. It’s reassuring and disturbing at the same time, with warm and sympathetic characters. In short, it’s exactly what I want in a nice and juicy mystery.