Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Printer's Devil Court

A short while ago I quoted the opening paragraph and an extract from page 56 of this novella in one of My Friday posts. I was hoping Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill would live up to the promise of its blurb of a chilling ghost story.

Blurb (Amazon)

A chilling ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.

One murky November evening after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer’s Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying.

Years later, Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.

Sadly, I don’t think it does live up to the blurb. I think it’s well written, but I didn’t find it chilling, although it does have a great sense of melancholy. Susan Hill is very good at setting the scene, although at times I was under the impression that this was set in Victorian times, especially as the illustrations give it a Dickensian feel. But in this scene when Hugh returns to London forty years later this is what he records :

… this corner of London had changed a good deal. Fleet Street no longer housed the hot-metal presses and many of the old alleys and courts had long gone, most of them bombed to smithereens by the Blitz. (page 68)

So, it’s not set in Victorian times, but in the 20th century.

Hugh is a junior doctor and shares his lodgings with three other medical students, Walter, Rafe and James and the story begins one evening as Walter asks what they all think about the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. It turns out that he and Rafe have been experimenting with the possibility of capturing the last breath and want Hugh to be a witness to what they find. From that point on  I could see almost exactly where the story was heading – it is too predictable.

It’s really a very short story padded out with several pages of illustrations, divided into three parts with an introductory letter, Postscript and Hugh’s Final Pages with blank pages between each sectionMaybe, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with this book if I hadn’t just read Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three of his short stories at the end of that book, which I think are excellent.

  • Hardcover, 105 pages
  • Published September 25th 2014 by Profile Books Ltd (first published October 14th 2013)
  • Source: Library Book

My Friday Post: Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring Printer’s Devil Court: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill, one of the books I’ve borrowed from my local library. This is a novella of just 106 pages.

Printer's Devil Court

In my first year as a junior doctor I moved into lodgings in a small court close by Fleet Street, an area which could not at the time have changed greatly since the days of Dickens.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

‘Do you not believe the evidence of your own eyes? How can what you witnessed tonight be some kind of trick or charade?

Blurb (Amazon)

A chilling ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.

One murky November evening after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer’s Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying.

Years later, Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.

~~~

I’ve loved some of Susan Hill’s books, but have found her novellas leave me feeling I want more – I hope this one lives up to the promise of its blurb.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

I began reading A Question of Identity, the 7th Simon Serrailler book by Susan Hill immediately after I’d finished reading the 6th book, The Betrayal of Trust (see my previous post), which had left some issues unresolved. I was hoping to find out more in this book and I wasn’t disappointed – which is one reason for reading these books in order. Another reason is to follow the continuing story of Simon and his family. And a third reason is that Susan Hill always focusses on one or more psychological/moral/ ethical issues.

Summary (back cover):

How do you catch a killer who doesn’t exist?

One snowy night in the cathedral city of Lafferton, an old woman is dragged from her bed and strangled with a length of flex.

DCS Simon Serrailler and his team search desperately for clues to her murderer. All they know is that the killer will strike again, and will once more leave the same tell-tale signature.

Then they track down a name: Alan Keyes. But Alan Keyes has no birth certificate, no address, no job, no family, no passport, no dental records. Nothing.

Their killer does not exist.

I much preferred this book to the previous one. It is more balanced between the crime and the continuing story of the main characters. I suspect it may be incorrect in describing police procedures – I don’t know and really it doesn’t bother me, this is fiction after all and I have no difficulty in believing in the world of Serrailler and Lafferton that Susan Hill has created.

The main theme in this book, as the title indicates is ‘identity’ and its importance, how it is concealed, whether a personality can be changed convincingly and completely, or whether eventually the façade will crack and the real character reassert itself.

Susan Hill is also very good at creating tension and suspense. You know there are going to be murders (just as in Casualty you know there’s going to be a terrible accident etc), but that just increases the suspense. She builds up the setting and the characters and I was hoping against hope that one of the characters would not be a victim – and of course she was. I suspected the identity of the killer quite early on and hoped I was wrong about that too – but I wasn’t.  I began to feel very uncomfortable about the fate of the elderly, living on their own, frail and vulnerable …

It’s the psychological/social elements of A Question of Identity that appealed to me more than the crime, although these elements are inevitably so closely connected.

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

So far this year I’ve been reading from my own bookshelves – books I’ve owned before 1 January. I’ve had The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill, the 6th in the Simon Serrailler series, for nearly a year now. Like the earlier books, this one is  character-driven, concentrating on the people involved in the crime and Simon’s family, and also covering several ethical/moral/medical issues.

The crime element concerns a cold case, that of a teenager missing for 16 years. After flooding causes a landslip on the Moor her body comes to the surface together with that of an unknown female found in a shallow grave near by.The cold case is not a priority as the police force is struggling with staff shortages and cuts – Simon has to solve the cases mainly on his own, with the occasional help from DS Ben Vanek.

But the police investigations are not the main subject of this book. It focuses on the problems of ageing, hospice care, Motor Neurone Disease, assisted suicide, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. A lot to cope with all at once and at times I found The Betrayal of Trust a deeply depressing book.

Having said that, as with Susan Hill’s other books, this is fluently written, looking at all sides of the issues, highlighting the dilemma facing those with terminal and debilitating illnesses, and those looking after dementia patients. The Serrailler family life has moved on from the last book, but Simon’s strained relationship with his father continues. He fails in love with a stunningly beautiful woman, which causes yet more complications – he just  doesn’t seem capable of having a happy relationship!

Although this is a quick read it’s also rather dark, with some dodgy and sinister characters and I was expecting it to be better than it is. It is a complex novel but the solution to the crime mystery soon becomes evident and is rather rushed at the end. There are several issues left unresolved and I hope they will be clarified in the next book in the series, A Question of Identity, which is next up for me to read.

The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill

The Shadows in the Streets is Susan Hill’s fifth Simon Serrailler crime novel. I’ve read the earlier books which I enjoyed, although I found the fourth book, The Vows of Silence rather a gloomy book not just because of the murders but also because of the unhappy state of Simon and his family. So, I decided to wait a while before moving on to the fifth book. And I am now way behind in reading the series, which will reach book 8 in October!

Susan Hill’s Serrailler novels, whilst being crime fiction, concern moral and social issues. They also follow the lives of the Serrailler family, the main characters being Simon and his sister, Dr Cat Deerbon, which is why I think it’s best to read them in order. I noticed that in this book there are references to events and characters in the earlier books and I had to look back to refresh my memory. Without knowing what happened before those incidents would not have made much sense. The books are character-driven, concentrating on the people involved in the crime rather than the police investigations, although that of course is also part of the story.

There are two major themes in this book. One concerns the murders of local prostitutes, found strangled and Susan Hill draws a sympathetic, but never a condescending or judgemental view of these women’s lives, resulting in a moving storyline of a young woman, Abi who is a single mother. Alongside this is the problem of mental illness, with Ruth Webber, who suffers from manic depression. She is the wife of the new Dean of the Cathedral and arrives full of plans to change things, which causes problems. When she too goes missing there are fears she may become one of the murder victims.

I think of these novels more as psychological studies than crime fiction – the characters and their lives predominate, whilst the police make slow progress in finding the murderer (much like real life, maybe). Anyway it’s the characters and their problems that interested me more in this book than the police procedures.

The Shadows in the Street is a complex book, but it is immensely readable and once the mystery really got under way it’s tense and full of suspense. I really enjoyed it.

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

Susan Hill’s The Small Hand: A Ghost Story is a novella, quickly and easily read, but it is not a scary ghost story. I think it could have worked better if it had been reduced to a short story – I felt even though it’s short that it had a certain amount of extra padding that reduced the tension and atmosphere. It felt rather limp and I was more interested in the main character’s book searches than in his search for the ghostly owner of the small hand that creeps into his.

It begins well. Adam Snow, a dealer in antiquarian books and manuscripts gets lost on his way home from visiting a client when he comes across a derelict Edwardian house. Wandering around the garden he feels compelled to know more about it, to see more, to find out what had happened and why the house had been abandoned. It was there in the garden that he had a strange experience:

And as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there, and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. As a reflex, I bent it over and we stood for a time which was out of time, my own man’s hand and the very small hand held as closely together as the hand of a father and his child. But I am not a father and the small child was invisible. (page 7)

But as I read, despite the pleasure of reading Susan Hill’s descriptive writing, I began to lose interest in the plot. At the end I thought it was more of a sad, mournful tale than a ghost story.

Teaser Tuesday – The Beacon by Susan Hill

I’ve just finished reading The Beacon by Susan Hill. It’s a short book that can be read in one sitting and it’s beautifully easy to read, written in a straight forward style, moving between the past and the present. It’s compelling, drawing a picture of a family, four children and their parents living in the Beacon, an old North Country farmhouse. It’s also full of tension, of unspoken feelings and emotions as each child, Colin, May, Frank and Berenice grow up and leave home. Except that May came back after a year at university in London, unable to cope with ‘the terrors’ that began to assail her.  As the years pass, May is left at home caring for her widowed mother, after she suffered a stroke.

I have two teasers today. The first is a description of one of May’s terrors:

When she lay down again she saw strange shapes before her eyes, trees with branches that curled upwards and inwards and turned to ash and blood-covered beaches dotted with mounds of sand-coloured snakes which stirred and coiled and uncoiled. Her own heart was beating extremely slowly and as it beat she felt it enlarging, swelling and filling out like a balloon inside her chest and stomach and finally growing up into her brain. (page 53)

And the second is about Frank. Frank is the mysterious one, the loner; the others felt they didn’t know him and said that no one knew what went on inside his head – it was one of life’s mysteries. There are hints throughout that Frank is different and it is only in the latter part of the book that it becomes clear why none of his siblings have any contact with him and don’t want him to know of his mother’s illness and death.

He did little speaking but a great deal of staring out of large green-grey, slightly bulbous eyes. He followed people too, his father and the men about the farm, his mother in the house, the other children at school almost anywhere. Turn round and Frank would be there, silent, watching, following. (page 32)

It’s a short, powerful book about truth and memory, about the ordinary everyday outer lives we  live and the inner turmoil and tensions within us. It’s also about what we make of our lives, how we express ourselves and about how other people see us. It’s amazing.

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event hosted by MizB where you share ‘teasers’. I’ve adapted it a bit in this post, to include more information about the book and longer teasers.