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Susan Hill, The Daily Telegraph

“There are these two sides in life, always: the innocent do suffer and there is evil.”

“What was it like having your first novel accepted before you were at university?” I ask Susan Hill, winner of the Whitbread and Somerset Maugham awards, author of three GCSE and A-level set texts. We sit in her 18th Century farmhouse. Crows call from the chimney-pot.

“Hang on a minute.” Hill jumps from the enormous Knole sofa, creeps across the drawing room, lifts a poker. “Close your ears.” She thwacks the chimney hood hard three times. The crows shut up. Hill settles back down. “Part of it was exciting, obviously. The other part was – it sounds awful – but, inside me, I always knew it would happen. That’s what I’d always done. It was the one thing I could do.”

What she has mostly done since is literary fiction (a phrase she hates, characteristically): subtle, absorbing novels such as Air And Angels, Strange Meeting and Mrs de Winter, a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca; enigmatic short stories; clever ghost stories such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror.

But suddenly, in 2004, she started producing contemporary crime fiction: The Various Haunts of Men was the first part of a trilogy featuring the intense, detective-artist Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler. The second, The Pure in Heart, has just appeared. Why the switch? “Writers need to have, not exactly days off, but to write things that are not coming from deep down inside you, but are actually rather more cerebral and direct.”

The books had an unnerving origin. In 1983, Hill’s oldest daughter Jessica, then six, walked alone to a nearby sweet shop. When, 15 minutes later, she hadn’t come back, Hill became frantic. Although Jessica returned safely, Hill remembers her fear, and thinks of those children who never came home. Years later, she returned to the theme.

“I was, like most people, incredibly affected by what happened in Soham. I began to think about how crime affects the victims, their families, the wider community. Why do people do these things? Why Harold Shipman? Why Ian Huntley?”

In The Pure in Heart, a child, David Angus, is abducted. The setting is the 21st Century Cathedral city of Lafferton – where gated homes shroud the outskirts; hoop-earringed harridans scream vitriol outside a paedophile’s house; ordinary people parrot precisely observed police-speak (‘Police say they are becoming increasingly concerned for David’s safety as time goes on’); and Serrailler has to turn media performer at press conferences.

Some of the descriptions could grace Hill’s more literary fiction: ‘The mist settled like cobwebs on their faces and hands’; ‘the moon slipped out and silvered the room again and the space between the beds was the width of the world’. Tension is ratcheted up by short, first-person chapters from the abducted David that are highly unsettling to read – as they were for Hill to write.

It is not a whodunnit. “It is not who – it’s what happens when a child vanishes and you don’t know where they are and what has happened to them.” Characters are as important as the search: the emotionally distant Serrailler, wanting sex but not love; Detective Sergeant Coates, despised on the council estate of his childhood; Serrailler’s twin-opposite sisters, the lively, pregnant Cat and the semi-comatose, disabled Martha.

Hill, born in 1942, was brought up in Scarborough and Coventry (her accent, like her loyalties, remains Northern), and has earned a living as a writer since leaving King’s College London, juggling early parenthood with book reviewing and writing Archers scripts.

Despite her shift in genre, The Pure in Heart centres on an old Hill preoccupation – the persecution of the innocent. In I’m the King of the Castle, it was the bullied schoolboy Kingshaw; in The Mist in the Mirror, the blameless James Monmouth, hounded by ghosts. Even in lighter books such as Gentlemen and Ladies, benign spinsters are harassed by batty old trouts. In The Pure in Heart, it is David Angus.

Hill sits forward, hands between her knees, thoughtful: “Why do the innocent suffer? There are these two sides in life, always: the innocent do suffer and there is evil.” Evil’s presence, she thinks, comes from love’s absence. She cites two friends, a forensic psychiatrist and a judge: “They both say they have never really known any serious murderer or psychopath for whom the key isn’t somewhere in an unloved childhood.”

Hill does not show the world completely at the mercy of malevolence. As an “instinctive counterbalancing”, figures of open but convincing benevolence people her books. One of the most striking is Jo, from In the Springtime of the Year, the only novel closely based on Hill’s life, and the only one she wouldn’t change at all. In 1972, Hill’s lover of eight years died. She was poleaxed. But the short, emotionally exhausting masterpiece which resulted, about Ruth, a young country widow, still elicits letters of thanks from bereaved readers (as I’m the King of the Castle does from bullied schoolchildren). Ruth had Jo, her patient young brother-in-law. Hill had David, her kind chorister godson.

Her powerful memoir, Family, details another bereavement. In 1975, Hill married the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. After Jessica, and several miscarriages, Hill gave birth to her daughter Imogen, very prematurely. Five weeks later, Imogen died. That story’s telling is typical Hill: shrewdness without cynicism; compassion without sentimentality.

It distanced her from God, for a while. She says every believer is challenged, “almost for God to say, ‘You thought you knew what I was like, your house of cards has come down now. Let’s start again.’ ” And, unlike some of her books, Family has a happy ending: the birth of Clemency who now, like Jessica, is studying for a degree.

Susan Hill, too, is working towards a Masters degree in theology. There is also her small publishing house, Long Barn Books, to run, more short stories to write, and more Serrailler novels. She calls them “entertainments”, as Graham Greene, her greatest novelist hero, did his less literary books. Hill admits it is a funny word for crime-writing, especially because hidden in all her novels, often unconsciously, “there is always a message somewhere, always a moral”.

What the message of ghosts is, she isn’t sure. “You get down to the 0.00001 per cent which are inexplicable in any other way. But I don’t know what they could be because I don’t see the point in them.” She laughs and gestures across the room, “What is the point of taking your head off and walking through a wall?”

Hill shows me the garden. The Cotswolds rise around. New Dawn roses, recommended by Angus Wilson during a Booker Prize judging, climb the house walls. She and Stanley had their eye on the house for years. They bought 50 acres around it too (courtesy of Mrs de Winter), left them chemical-free and saw wildflowers and birds flourish. Hill points to their cherry orchard. The white blossom had been out a couple of weeks before. “It was like walking through a field of ghosts.”

26 June 2005

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