REGINALD HILL - A Stranger and Afraid

Written by Barbara Loon

 

The Stranger House by Reginald Hill reviewed by Barbara Loon

Strangers should be afraid - very afraid - in Illthwaite, a Cumbrian village situated in the fictional valley of Skaddale. It is a place of shades and shadows, and Hill's narrative reflects the landscape he has created. We expect elusiveness and obscurity in a novel of detection, and Hill is a master of the genre, but The Stranger House is a foray into the supernatural and unnatural. This is no tricky puzzle of a mystery. It is an exploration of the inexplicable, a mining of the past, an acknowledgement of the primeval. Above all, it is an exposition of the symbiosis that exists between place and inhabitant. They shape each other, and Illthwaite's darkness as it squats in the valley is more a spiritual than a physical state.

The Stranger House of the title of Hill's novel is a pub and hostelry that was once attached to the local priory - traditionally a building offering hospitality if not refuge. Like everything else in Illthwaite, though, it is ambiguous and perverse. Hospitality is laced with hostility, and refuge is a prelude to betrayal. The history of the house reveals an animosity to strangers, and the sense of menace remains. The landlady is a fresh faced, buxom women, the epitome of openness and country forthrightness, but she too has secrets, although they are not what we expect. Or rather, they are not what Sam Flood expects. For it is primarily through Samantha Flood's eyes that we see Illthwaite and its inhabitants, and Sam is very much a stranger in a strange land, although in another sense she is very much part of this landscape and this community.

Sam Flood is an Australian, and she tackles the mysteries of Illthwaite in the abrasive, confrontational manner that becomes synonymous with 'colonial' and/or 'Australian' in the view of many locals. She is also a mathematician, and so she remains confident of a logical explanation for the anomalies she encounters - if she can just extract the information she needs from the grasp of general reticence. She is an inspired creation, allowing Hill to explore the effect of brash modernity set against taciturn tradition, new world against old. Her burning energy, visually realised in the wildness of her red hair, prevents the narrative from stagnating in the bog that borders the village. Her hair, like her childlike stature, has other implications though, and the unravelling of these underlines the theme of the text, and what I read as its warning. Nothing is what it seems; the obvious is an illusion; truth hurts.

Pain, or the threat of pain, is a chronic condition for the second protagonist, the failed Catholic priest, Miguel Ramos Elkington Madero, known as Mig. He is afflicted by - or blessed to experience - stigmata. They are not what they seem, although the resolution of mysteries does not discredit them. Rather, it raises questions around the nature of crucifixion and the validity of religious experience. Religion in this landscape is not confined to the conventional opposition of Catholic and Protestant, although an exploration of this conflict serves to underline, as ever, the brutality that contradicted Christianity's message. Older faiths and cultures dominate the spiritual dimension, however. The Viking heritage permeates the fabric of the village: the very name 'Illthwaite' fuses a saint with a Viking term, and the churchyard boasts a wolf's head cross, a pagan symbol pressed into use by the religion that deposed it. The wolf is a potent symbol throughout the novel, and resonates with meaning for modern readers. The extinction of the wolf from the British Isles lends an allure, but we also know the wolf as a deceiver, dressed in sheep's clothing, or disguised as grandma, or mutated from human to werewolf. It is helpful to know that it was also a significant beast in Norse mythology. For example, Odin, god of warriors and kings, knew that he would be swallowed by a wolf, but nevertheless still chose to do battle, and embrace his fate. Hill emphasises the influence of the Nordic culture by using extracts from the Poetic Edda, and occasionally the Prose Edda, to preface the sections of the text. The Edda are not religious tracts, but they acknowledge the existence of ghosts and other dimensions, all very much part of Illthwaite.

An even older faith or religion pervades the landscape, shapes its characters, and informs the narrative. It has no name. It is hinted at in the character (for they share one) of the Gowder brothers of Foulgate Farm, in the mist and marsh that is Mecklin Moss, in Mig's sensitivity to the past and in hints of paedophilia and incest. The unrecorded and instinctive religion that linked communities to their habitats is evoked. Continuity is a condition in Illthwaite, and threats to that continuity are not tolerated. Or so it seems. Perhaps the threat is really a rescue operation.

One of the most powerful religious confrontations in the novel is between Sam's father (also Sam Flood) and the Catholic faith in general. One of its mysteries deals with the reasons for Sam Flood the father's antipathy to his mother's faith, and the narrative might be read as an indictment of Catholicism. Recent and historic transgressions are visited, and the chapter dealing with the torture of Father Simeon Woollas in 1589 should carry a warning for sensitive readers. It would be simplistic to read the novel this way, however, because it is complex and multi-layered beyond the usual scope of a murder mystery.

And, in case you are wondering, there are indeed murder mysteries to solve, and questions of culpability to resolve. Most readers know Hill primarily as the creator of the Dalziel and Pascoe partnership. The mysteries of The Stranger House do not need the services of a modern police force or even gifted amateur sleuth. This is not necessarily a major departure for Hill. He has responded to the suggestion that his work can be categorized as British Police Procedurals and/or Crime Fiction by saying that genres should indicate only a broad grouping under headings of subject, style or approach. He is inspired to use the search for the past as his vehicle for uncovering the crimes that lurk in Illthwaite's past.

Family genealogy is a popular past time, promoted by a recent BBC television series. Hill has tapped into a distinctly fashionable discipline, and one on which his readers will probably have some knowledge. He is clever enough not to pander to the hope that the discovery of ones roots a) can take place purely by Internet research and b) will result in joyful connection with interesting ancestors, if not congenial contemporaries. To be fair, the BBC made the same points, balancing them with emotional and emotive reunion scenarios. Hill takes the negative possibilities further, giving graphic expression to the genetic weaknesses that we all carry, as well as to the pain and shame that our ancestry can carry. He also makes the point that the Internet, the library, the university, and official records cannot combine to tell the whole story. There is a strong element of intuition and instinct, and as a result a return to ways of knowing and understanding that do not rely on words.

It is to his credit that he achieves this by using nothing but words.

Hill's narrative offers a satisfying climax and a degree of closure without the complete denouement usual to the murder mystery. There is a sense of open-endedness and progression. Sam's logic and forthrightness embody the challenge of the technological-information age, but they work most effectively in tandem with the intuition and historical grounding that Mig offers. Ultimately she acknowledges and finds value in her connection with the old without being absorbed by it. The apparent sterility of the community of Illthwaite is redeemed, both within and without. Mig finds a way to embrace the blood and the wine that are his inheritance.

But very few questions are fully or incontrovertibly answered. Rather, new myths are created, and a fertile ground is laid for the researches of a future generation. Which is probably, if paradoxically, as good as fiction gets without becoming a lie - and Reginald Hill says in his opening note 'just because I've made it up doesn't mean it isn't true.'

RELATED WEBSITES:

Read about Reginald Hill's past and future publications, as well as his philosophy of life and writing, at http://www.collins-crime.co.uk/authors/default.aspx?id=2636.

Cumbria's landscape and history is presented on a number of sites, but for Viking crosses, try http://www.visitcumbria.com/crosses.htm. Wolf crosses seem to be most prevalent in the form of pendants depicting Thor's Hammer, but an interesting example of a cross that has possible wolf-symbolism is at Gosforth Church. Images are available at http://web.ukonline.co.uk/cj.tolley/ctm/ctm-gosforth.htm , but the depiction of the wolf (above the crucifixion) is not clear. There is a copy of the cross at the V&A, so if you live in London you might feel inspired to do some research in real space. It's free.

Norse mythology is quite easy to find on the web. I found the following site particularly user friendly, non-patronising and not overly scholarly: http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~cherryne/mythology.html.

Genealogical sites are also abundant, but retrieval of documents can incur a charge. Start with http://www.familyrecords.gov.uk. Look at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk as well.

THE STRANGER HOUSE (HarperCollins £12.99 hbk Rel:July 2005)

 

 

 

 


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Reginald Hill



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