Reginald Hill departs from his normal genre of detective fiction in The Stranger House, instead we have one mystery that spans decades to the forced migration of children to Australia and another that goes back centuries to the time of the reformation.
Sam Flood, Australian and former priest, Miguel Madro who is half-Spanish, meet at The Stranger House in Illthwaite, Cumbria. With the two strangers thrown together to uncover what happened to their ancestors they soon find that the villagers will close up as tight as a clam to protect the past from them because while they appear to help in finding out why Sam’s grandmother was shipped off to Australia they are actually working frantically to conceal the past from her.
Reginald Hill moves the subjects covered seamlessly from mathematics which is Sam Flood’s speciality to Nordic myths from the supernatural to historical records, this book has so many layers that as a reader even in the slower middle section there is much to ponder and wonder about. The villagers if not the stars of the show are certainly deserve the best supporting cast moniker, with the mix of fantastically ugly identical twins, the half-truths told and the mysterious contests held to liven up the days such as the gurning competition.
A book so dense in detail and one that covers the present, past and recent past it all sounds a bit heavy, and in the hands of a less accomplished writer could easily be a turgid read, but we are lucky that Reginald Hill is a master of adding a light touch with a touch of humour to ease the complexity at just the right moments. I struggle reading about the supernatural, often this will make me put the book aside in disbelief and annoyance however once again Hill judges his readers capacity for reality and within the claustrophobic setting of the small village where secrets are kept to hide other secrets this aspect complemented rather than overwhelmed the plot. This isn’t a story of good and bad, or to use the disparate protagonist’s characteristics one of logic and spiritual, instead expect a mixture of shades of grey with multifarious conclusions to be taken.
So with fantastic characters, a plot that you feel has been carefully paced to get the maximum reaction The Stranger House is a perfect standalone novel from this wonderful author whose books are always a pleasure to read.