Written by Susan Hill — In the quiet cathedral city of Lafferton there are cries in the night. Children’s cries. Odd incidents come to light, and before too long the authorities realise that they have the nightmare of child abuse going on around them. Eventually the professionals wake up to what is going on, and arrests are made. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The paedophile ring is wider and continues to operate. A young man called Miles Fernley has gone to prison for his part in the abuse, but he is steadfastly refusing to name any of his contacts.
DCI Simon Serailler is asked to undertake the most hazardous role of his career. He is to be given a new identity, that of child abuser Jonno Miles, and sent to the same prison where Fernley is doing time. This is no ordinary prison, however. Set on a former air base in the wilds of North Norfolk, Stitchford is a therapeutic facility that aims to rehabilitate sex offenders. Serailler has one task – to befriend Fernley, and prise from him the names of the other men who were part of the ring.
As Serailler lives out his new character and gets closer to Fernley, he seems to be making progress, but then Fernley involves him in a scheme which may cause his elaborate alias to crumble into nothing. Meanwhile, there is Serailler’s family back in Lafferton. His sister Cat – a doctor – is struggling with her career and the untimely death of her husband. Serailler’s girlfriend Rachel has recently moved into his flat, but she suspects that this might be a move too far for the confirmed bachelor. His father Richard is as prominent a name in Lafferton as his son, but his fascination with Shelley Pendleton, the wife of one of Serailler’s fellow Masons, leads to potential disaster for both families.
Back at Stitchford, our undercover man is helpless as events start to spiral out of control, and his main focus becomes that of saving his own life rather than wheedling the names out Fernley. The concluding chapters become shorter and shorter, but contain more and more crucial details about the fate of Serailler and his investigation, and the step-up in pace is masterly.
This a beautifully written and absorbing book. And yet, and yet… without suggesting that Susan Hill has an explicit feminist agenda, I would make the point that the male characters in the book, with the exception of Serailler himself, are portrayed as human beings deficient in various ways. Richard Serailler is unequivocally manipulative and prone to violence, Tim Pendleton totally fails to grasp or believe what his wife has been through, and Miles and his co-conspirators are a thoroughly bad lot. The women, on the other hand, are portrayed in a much mellower light. Judith (Serailler’s step-mother), Shelley, Cat and Rachel are all three dimensional, complex, flawed characters, but ultimately on the side of good. With his sensitivity, awareness and capacity for introspection, Simon Serailler himself comes over as an honorary woman, in spite of his physical strength and actual gender..
This aside, we are left with a fine novel. The setting is cosy in a cathedral city kind of way, but this is no Barchester Towers. We are not looking at petty clerical jealousies, but paedophilia, corruption and rape. There is a hard and brutal conclusion to the novel, but one which leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope.
Chatto & Windus
CFL Rating: 4 Stars