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by Susan Hill
Overlook , October 2012
354 pages
ISBN: 0307363023

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When it comes to getting beneath the surface of small communities and revealing often dark truths about our neighbors, families, and ourselves there is often no better bet than the British police procedural in the hands of a genre author with a literary flair. Detectives such as Adam Dalgliesh and Reginald Wexford have dominated work such as these for the better part of the last half century and Susan Hill's protagonist Simon Serrailler - now in his seventh outing - is a not too distant descendant of James' and Rendell's creations. A QUESTION OF IDENTITY opens with a prologue of sorts that takes place ten years prior to the rest of the novel where a man who is clearly guilty of strangling a series of elderly women is acquitted on a technicality and due to the sensational nature of the press coverage is given a new identity and a new life.

Hill then brings us to the current day where Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler finds himself embattled in his personal life on several fronts, where he is experiencing turmoil with the pending retirement of his supervisor, helping with his sister's troublesome kids, and involved in a hopelessly complicated relationship with a married woman with a dying husband. Then he is called to investigate a series of brutal series strangling murders of elderly women in a nearby village - murders that bear a striking similarity to the ones that occurred ten years ago, yet the acquitted (though not necessarily innocent) man tried for the crimes seem to have disappeared into thin air. Though his disappearance is obviously a case of law enforcement induced identity change, the powers that be are none too interested and helping Simon find the likely culprit, and then a lapse of judgment after the first murder leads to a media firestorm further complicating his investigation.

In more ways than not, Hill's work comes across not only as a successor to the detective works of James and Rendell, but at times a pastiche. The opening prologue that serves as a set-up for the villain to be acquitted has more than a passing similarity to the opening pages of P D James's mystery A CERTAIN JUSTICE (1997) that may make readers of both works a bit uncomfortable. That being said, A QUESTION OF IDENTITY manages to stand on it own, both as a piece of literature and as a mystery - albeit one where the culprit (if not the name he goes by) and his motives are clear throughout. At its heart, the book is continually asking the question of whether it is ever possible to truly start anew in life, all the while also recognizing that change is never as easy as it may appear at the outset. Nearly every character is trying to move past one crisis or another, and yet it is unclear if any of them truly have hope of achieving that.

A QUESTION OF IDENTITY does suffer from an overload of plotlines particularly as they relate to Simon's personal life and this is compounded by the fact that many of these plotlines are presented with little context and will confuse readers not familiar with the entire series already. We must expect to lose some of the context of character development by not reading the previous works, but many detective fiction writers have managed to add depth to the lives of their characters. The lack of context exhibited here is disappointing and will no doubt limit the appeal of this book to readers new to the series. But overall, Susan Hill still stands as a worthwhile successor to authors like James and Rendell in that she has crafted a fascinating detective story while delving into social ills that many benchmark authors of "literary fiction" are able to address only half as well.

Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, February 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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