Driving home last night from a long day at the office, I was kept awake and alert on a succession of motorways by an audio recording of The Pure in Heart, the second book in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler police procedural series.
Actually, awake and alert, does not even come close. I was transfixed by the power of Hill's writing and her extraordinary ability to bring raw emotion alive with the written word. And nor does "police procedural" do justice to the depth of these books. Yes, there's a crime, and yes a detective - the enigmatic DCI Serrailler investigates. But the stories roll across a broad canvas of life, love and death portraying the human condition with such piercing insight it can be alternately exhilarating and terrifying.
The Pure in Heart is my third Susan Hill audio book this year, after the first Serrailler novel, The Various Haunts of Men, and the classic, gothic ghost story The Woman In Black, which has just been made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe.
Driving back late from Heathrow a couple of months ago, I actually had to turn The Woman in Black off as I turned down one particularly dark and narrow country lane. Writing convincing ghost stories is not easy, and I find myself consistently disappointed by them. Not this. By the time Mr Kipps made his way to Eel Marsh house and saw the lady I was all but convinced she was hiding behind every other tree I drove past, in every shadow. The suspense was spell-binding throughout, the story-telling taut and spare, and with a terrible momentum of inevtiability that made it near unbearable in parts. But, during daylight, impossible to stop listening to.
Last night's moment of breathtaking power was found in the heart-rending anguish of the mother of a kidnapped child. For a parent it made some of the most difficult listening/reading I've ever come across. Of course I never fail to empathise with any parent who suffers that kind of loss - parents on television making appeals, or in newspaper reports describing their grief. But Susan Hill's writing delivered the scenario with such pathos for just a moment it was my grief, my child. Extraordinary.
If you haven't discovered Susan Hill yet, she comes with the highest recommendation I have to offer. I have no doubt that by the time 2012 is out, I'll have listened to (or read) the rest of the Serrailler series and whatever else I can lay my hands on. But if you do follow the recommendation, I suggest making sure the sun's up before you try The Woman in Black.