- - Friday, December 28, 2012

By Susan Hill
Overlook Press, $25.95, 336 pages

Susan Hill is a prize-winning author who deals in uncommon darkness. This time, it’s a psychopath who finds happiness in strangling elderly women.

The chapters in her most recent novel, “A Question of Identity,” are bridged by passages written by the killer. What makes the book as cold-blooded as it is chilling is that he is a man whom a jury inexplicably found not guilty of murdering another three women. What is even more inexplicable is that he is then placed in what amounts to a witness protection program and given a new identity by a mysterious and anonymous government agency.

What doesn’t change is the man himself. He has a new life, he remarries and has two children and finds a respectable occupation as a plumber. Yet the monster is still there in his mind, waiting.

He reflects, gruesomely, “Haven’t forgotten a thing. What it was like, the old biddies, cops, stir, then the Big Bang. I haven’t forgotten a spark of it. Keeps me warm at night. Even now.”

The evocation of evil in which Ms. Hill specializes is not surprising, given that it was she who wrote “The Woman in Black,” one of the most chilling ghost stories ever produced on the London stage. In this case, she demonstrates that she hasn’t lost her touch in presenting scenes all the more horrifying because the setting and the victims are mundane. The frantic police in the English cathedral town of Lafferton find themselves blocked in their investigation by the surreal group of people who know who the killer is because they polished him up and re-created him in his own image. Yet they refuse to provide clues to his identity to Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler despite the understandable tide of rising local panic.

One of the strengths of the plot is its characterization — especially in the relationships between Serrailler and his family. Yet what stalks the pages is the shadow of death, emphasized by a sense of hopelessness because nobody can protect or save two likable women who, in their declining years, have just moved into new homes in so-called sheltered accommodation. Both are dead almost immediately, and the killer quietly licks his chops as he zeroes in on another target. Most frustrating to Serrailler and his sergeant, Nathan Coates, is that even locating the real name of the killer doesn’t help. It was Alan Keyes who was acquitted of three savage killings, but there is no Alan Keyes. There is no birth certificate, no passport, no address, no family, not even dental records to track that name.

Keyes has vanished, and only the secret agency apparently assigned to deal with killers who got away with it knows who he is, where he is and what he does. A desperate Serrailler calls the section identifying itself only as “Floor Five.” There, a man in a small anonymous office uses two passwords to open a file called “Jogging Sparrow.”

“It was like opening a box within a box, each with a different key. A lot of people would have found the process and the information in the file beyond exciting. But police officers who worked in this section were not easily excited. That was one of the reasons they were picked.”

It turns out that Alan Keyes has fallen through a crack in the Floor Five system, which is no help to Serrailler. As he waits for information, the killer strikes again, burning down the shack of Nobby Parks, a local wanderer — with Nobby in it. His reason is that Nobby wandered the town at night and could have seen and recognized the deadly shadow haunting the streets. Ironically, the killer reproaches himself, “He didn’t deserve that. Even if he had seen something. Heard something. Knew something. And how else was I supposed to shut him up? Tell me that.”

Finally, Floor Five concedes the need for “damage limitation” and offers a clue. The police close in on the man who was Alan Keyes. He even confesses. He blames himself, but he is not remorseful about his crimes. The ultimate irony is that he isn’t discouraged and even finds reason for optimism about his future.

He reassures himself that the psychiatrists will “understand and write it up so it’s not what people think of as a murder. They’ve got words. Phrases. Jargon. The way I see it, it’ll be five years in the hospital for treatment, cure and out.”

As the book marches to the close not to be revealed here, Ms. Hill ends as she began — on a note of terror.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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