Gobsmacked I am – truly!! The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

January 27, 2008 at 12:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

pure.jpg susan-hill_1_.jpg I’m speechless. (Not me – not possible!) Okay – very nearly speechless. I do wish I had some fresh superlatives. Because I just finished a novel that is nothing short of superb.

Susan Hill’s procedural begins atypically: Simon Serrailler is being ferried around Venice by his friend Ernesto. Serailler carries with him an artist’s portfolio; he is searching for subjects to sketch. The scene has a slightly unworldly, timeless quality. I came to this novel under the misapprehension that the action took place in the 19th cenury. I was quickly disabused of this notion when Simon was referred to as Detective Chief Inspector.

Simon’s quest for artistic inspiration is interrupted when he is summoned back home to England by his cold, imperious father. His severely disabled sister Martha is critically ill with pneumonia. Simon’s love for Martha is deep and unfeigned; without hesitation, he rushes back to her.

Martha recovers and is returned to life in a care home. We also meet another of Simon’s sisters: Cat, a physician who is expecting her third child. Cat’s husband Chris Deerbon is also a doctor, as are both of Simon’s parents. In fact, part of the problem between Simon and his father is that the elder Serrailler has never approved of his son’s choice of profession. (There is a fourth sibling, Ivo, who lives in Australia – deliberately far, one suspects, from the madding crowd of his family.)

In addition to being a novel of crime, The Pure in Heart is very much a family story. The Serraillers, wealthy and refined, are a kind of medical aristocracy. Simon himself strikes me as a cross between Thomas Lynley and Adam Dalgliesh: he can be remote and moody at one moment, kind and generous at another. Both Dalgliesh and Simon Serrailer have esthetic gifts that they nurture as a kind of counterweight to their work in law enforcement. Dalgliesh is a published poet; Simon Serrailler is an artist.

After Martha’s recovery, Simon goes back to work without using the rest of his leave. It is just as well he decides to do this: a nine-year-old boy, David Angus, has gone missing. In a small village like Lafferton, this is an unusual, not to mention extremely upsetting event. But the feelings of bystanders are as nothing compared to the effect their son’s disappearance has on Marilyn and Alan Angus and their other child, Lucy.

Susan Hill takes us deep into the Hell that this family’s existence becomes. For some readers, it may be too deep. Very little physical violence is depicted in The Pure in Heart, but the damage to hearts and minds is described in excruciating, unsparing detail. I have not empathized so strongly with the pain of characters in a novel since I read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. case.jpg kate_atkinson.jpg

The first entry in this series is called The Various Haunts of Men. I may go back and read it, although I rather wish I had read it first.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that at the conclusion of The Pure in Heart, several crucial plot points are left unresolved. This was one of the many things I loved about this deeply intelligent, beautifully written book.

[Here is the entry for Susan Hill on the British Council’s Contemporary Writers in the UK. This is a really useful site which, among other things, gives you author contact information.]


  1. BooksPlease said,

    Do have a look at Susan Hill’s website http://www.susan-hill.com/ and her blog if you haven’t found it already. She is one of my favourite authors.

  2. Kay said,

    I have this book on my shelf and several others of hers. I am excited about reading them especially after your glowing review. Sounds like a real treat for me and I won’t be worried about the content.

  3. Roberta Rood said,

    Thanks, Booksplease, for recommending Susan Hill’s website and blog. I intend to visit frequently.

    Kay, I feel sure you’ll enjoy The Pure in Heart. And right – no worries about difficult content!

  4. Shirley said,

    Thank you, Roberta for another super recommendation — I followed your advice and read ‘the various haunts of men’ first. what a glorious interweaving of love stories ,loneliness, and the classic British mystery

  5. Lourdes said,

    I’m so glad you liked this book (I just finished it this month). You must read the first one — if you were gobsmacked by this one, the first one delivers an even greater punch! Hill has become one of my favorite authors.

  6. The Face of Shakespeare? « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a video on the subject of this recent, rather significant find.  (Stanley Wells is married to Susan Hill, a writer I esteem highly. I love this small world quality of British intellectual […]

  7. Art and Intrigue II: The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Arts in Manhattan.  A painter himself  and passionate about art in general, he put me in mind of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler and P.D. James’s Adam […]

  8. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Know – Laura Lippman On Beulah Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill The Godwulf Manuscript and The Professional – Robert B. Parker The Remains of an […]

  9. Diana Hart said,

    Susan, How disgusting the first chapter of ” The Vow of Silence” with three men crawling up a mountain and blowing the brains out of a defenceless old Stag. Needless to say I won’t be reading any more of your books.; not even one chapter. I don’t . You are an insensitive person. Maybe you have a lot of reader who get a kick out of killing innocent animals. dmh

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I haven’t read Vow of Silence, but I have a strong aversion to any violence or cruelty against animals, either in real life or in fiction. I have seen it used as a plot point too many times, when something less appalling could have been used instead.

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