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British Mysteries

The Stranger House, Reginald Hill, Harper Collins, $24.95.

There are few other writers who write as prolifically and as brilliantly as Reginald Hill - I think his only true equals are Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters (who isn't as prolific as her older peers). This novel is not in his series, but is a complex stand alone taking place in Hill's own native Cumbria in a creepy small village called Illthwaite. The opening - and indeed the entire novel - reminded me very much of Val McDermid's masterpiece, A Place of Execution, though it didn't have (for me, at least) the drive that novel did. It more than makes up for it, though, in the complex family dynamics and intertwined souls that come together in The Stranger House. The Stranger House is an Inn where the red headed, brilliant mathematician, Sam Flood, comes looking for her roots, and where the melancholy Spaniard, Mig Madero - heir to a sherry dynasty and a failed priest - comes to research the persecution of Catholic priests by Queen Elizabeth I.

Sam Flood has come to Illthwaite to find a link to a grandmother who was sent as a child to Australia to be adopted. Her grandmother, only 12 when she arrived in Australia, quickly died in childbirth under the brutal ministrations of the nuns in the convent she's been sent to. Her own father has long since given up a search for any British ancestors, but Sam, come to England to attend Oxford, has a thirst for a hunt. She gets far more than she bargains for. Mig, a Catholic who from boyhood has had visions and felt pain in his palms and feet at odd times, has discovered his calling to be a priest isn't a true one, and he's at a loose end when, after a climbing accident, he goes to England to research the whereabouts of a certain Father Simeon of Illthwaite. He, too, gets more than he bargained for.

I think only a writer as assured and intelligent as Reginald Hill would have been able to draw the many disparate threads of this story together in a satisfying way, but he manages to tie together a narrative involving a priest hole, priest torture, child rape and the lives of the several vivid families of Illthwaite in such a way that the final sort of "gotcha" moment comes in the very last sentence. It's an incredibly atmospheric book - Cumbria, as seen through the eyes of a Spaniard and an Australian - is a mysterious and far from straightforward place, and it's also infused with the Norse mythology that overlies the "newer" mythology of Christianity. To an American, some of the events are impossibly antique, but Hill infuses both the present and the past parts of his story with an equal fire. This is an unusual, difficult, and intelligent read that would be enjoyed by any fan of the British psychological mystery. It even ends somewhat happily (and in comparison to a Ruth Rendell ending, it's a virtual fiesta of fun and happiness).

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