Hill, Susan - 'The Betrayal of Trust'
Flash floods unearth a skeleton from a shallow grave, bringing a cold case to the door of Simon Serrailler. The remains are identified as those of missing teenager, Harriet Lowther. Serrailler must reopen the case, examine old evidence and hope to solve a mystery that's sixteen years old. Elsewhere, his sister, Cat, is fighting for funding to prevent the closure of the local hospice. Her patient, Jocelyn Forbes, newly diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, is battling for a dignified death. In her vulnerable state, will she make bad choices and expose herself to further suffering?
The best crime novels tackle social and moral issues without flinching, and there is no doubting Susan Hill's courage in choosing the themes of old age and assisted dying. The novel is dedicated 'To the carers of this world'. Every character is connected in some way to someone who has died or is dying, or else they are living with loss or without obvious hope. Of necessity, this makes for uncomfortable reading. But the best books (crime or otherwise) should make readers at least a little uncomfortable. Should make us question our values, and our society. This book prompts precisely this kind of questioning, despite dealing somewhat dogmatically with the central themes.
The most successful aspect of the story is the cold case and how its reopening affects the lives of those touched by the loss of Harriet Lowther sixteen years ago. Her father's pain, the witnesses' struggle to recall details, and the unfolding of a flashback that will eventually reveal the killer - all these aspects feel real. It is a little irksome (for this reader, anyway) when Serrailler becomes distracted by his latest love interest and starts to favour checking his texts over unstinting police work. Not least since loyal readers are familiar with Serrailler's habit of attracting unattainable women: a nun; a fated police colleague, and now a married woman who cannot leave her husband, even for our dashing hero. It's easy to feel sorry for the new woman, Rachel. If she's lucky, Serrailler may remember what she looks like, by the time the next book is out. Poor old Freya is quite forgotten, as Serrailler himself admits.
More problematic than the romantic distraction is the linear denouement to the difficult issue of assisted dying. It is interesting to read a story which approaches this from an unusual angle of attack, but by deconstructing the more popular artistic stance (whole chapters are devoted to exposing the 'illusions' in, for example, A Short Stay in Switzerland), Hill risks over-simplifying an intricately complex issue.
I should declare a vested interest in the subject matter here - and in the moral position adopted by the author. Ten years ago, I lost my father to Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Last year, I lost a writing mentor and close friend to the same disease. So my experience of MND is very personal. In THE BETRAYAL OF TRUST, Jocelyn's instinctive response to her diagnosis feels entirely credible: she wants to die at the time and in the place of her choosing. Less credible is the reaction of those around her. When she asks her best friend to accompany her to a clinic in Switzerland, Jocelyn is told that she has ruined their friendship. Her daughter's reaction is little better, although this does evolve over the course of the novel.
Hill states that Jocelyn's experience of MND is based on remembering her father's death from the disease. Familial MND is extremely rare (only 5-10% of all cases). And surely both her best friend and her daughter would have a different perspective on the disease which killed Jocelyn's father? Even the compassionate Cat seems unable or unwilling to give Jocelyn the support she needs. Instead, Jocelyn is left to scour the internet for someone willing to help her end her life. She finds only people who want her money, and her silence. MND is a very isolating illness, but a more rounded story would have provided characters whose support for Jocelyn was based on something other than manipulative greed.
The latter part of the book is a tour de force in storytelling, as the reader is tricked into suspecting a desperate murderer is at play. Skilfully done, unquestionably. But this reader was hoping for a more thoughtful and layered denouement.
Sarah Hilary, England
Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. She is currently working on a crime novel. Her agent is Jane Gregory
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