THE PURE IN HEART is the second outing for DCI Simon Serrailler of Lafferton police. The first title, THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN, introduced the local CID and Simon's medical family, as well as a serial-killer plot and a horrible ending. An ending so horrible, in fact, that it took me a while to turn to the next installment. However, I am very glad I did. THE PURE IN HEART has hit its stride compared with VARIOUS HAUNTS: Simon is a more fully rounded character and the plot is more persuasive. A nine-year-old boy vanishes while waiting outside his house for his lift to school. The police try to find what happened to him, and the story closely follows the effects of the disappearance on the boy's family as well as on Simon and his colleagues. The menace is palpable, the psychology of the characters is told with insight, and the book is extremely readable.
Simon is the son of two doctors and is a triplet, the only one of the three not to go into the medical profession. His sister Cat is a local GP and his brother Ivor has cut himself off from the family and lives in Australia. There is, however, a younger sibling called Martha, who was born brain-damaged: in this book she is 26 but cannot speak or move, needing total care. As the book opens, Simon is called back from holiday as Martha has pneumonia and is near death. As the book continues, we see his closeness to his sister, and the author takes the opportunity to look at questions of the quality of life and the ethics of euthanasia from different points of view – dispassionately while never losing touch with humanity.
THE PURE IN HEART was first published a year or two before the famous abduction of Madeline McCann, but tells a similar story. When the boy is reported missing in the novel, a policeman says "Yeah, you report your nine-year-old kid missing, next minute your rooms are full of men in white coats scraping bits off the carpet". Post-McCann readers cannot but help compare this common-sense to the police investigation in the real-life case.
Simon's character is much stronger, and less idealised, than in the earlier book – he is a strange mixture of warmth, for example he loves his younger sister, and callousness, being very cruel to his erstwhile lover Diana (the reader is emphatically informed he is not gay). Simon is highly critical of his remote father, who is a retired doctor, but does not seem to recognise that in his own emotional coldness he is just like his parent. The book's living heart is Simon's sister Cat, a local GP, who is struggling with the bureaucracy of her job while heavily pregnant with her third child. As well as these strong characterisations, which include a harrowing portrait of the disintegration of the family of the missing boy, the plot is truly gripping. Most ends are not tied up, adding a sense of realism and a chilling fatalism which stays with you long after you have finished the last page.