Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sophie Hannah in Two Acts, Regarding her Appearance on September 19 at Boswell. Part One: Mystery or Novel?

Part I: The Mystery or the Novel, That is the Question.

I just finished reading my first Sophie Hannah novel. In a sense, The Cradle in the Grave is a traditional mystery series.  There are two detectives, Sgt. Charlotte (Charlie) Zailer and Sgt. Simon Waterhouse, that have appeared in all her novels since Little Face.

Here's the setup. There are three women (perhaps more) who've claimed SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) but may have actually murdered their children.  A production company is working on a documentary that attempts to defend the three, blaming a medical expert who gave the damning evidence. Felicity (Fliss) Benson, one of the staff producers, is given a big promotion when her boss, Laurie Nattrass (a guy, this is British) mysteriously resigns his post.  And everyone is getting these cards with 16 digits in a four-by-four grid.

In another sense, Hannah's novel is anything but traditional.  Like Kate Atkinson and Tana French, Hannah plays with the structure of the mystery novel. For one thing, Hannah takes much longer to play out the crimes, and spends a lot more time developing the characters. Fliss is half in love with her ex-boss Laurie, and this promotion has thrown off her friendship with her once colleague, now laid-off friend, Tamsin. The three accused women, Helen Yardley, Rachel (Ray) Hines, and Sarah Jaggard, all have very different stories.  One of them, Ray, has befriended Judith Duffy, the doctor who testified that the children were murdered.

Until the story settles in, the story begins with several pieces of evidence--a news report, an interview with a suspect, and an excerpt from Helen Yardley's memoir, Nothing but Love.  Yardley is perhaps the most notable of the three cases, having served prison time before having her case reversed, and her memoir is a vital piece of evidence, particularly when (and I'm not giving away anything more than the back jacket copy here) Helen is murdered.

As you know, I often suggest to folks that they read series novels in the order they were written, but there are exceptions. My former colleague Jack always reminded me to start folks reading Lee Child somewhere around book #5 and then let them revisit the older titles later, once they are into the series.

In the case of Sophie Hannah, it's something different.  In many mystery novels, whoever else is in the book, the detective is the true protagonist.  The victim, the accused, the next target, are all secondary.  But Hannah really tries to bring the other characters to the fore; it could be argued that Fliss, the amateur trying to figure out what is going on as the detectives are also piecing together the puzzle, is the real protagonist here.

Having not read psychological thrillers, I wonder if this is one of the hallmarks of the subgenre. Another is the focus on the motivation, and to do this, you really need to develop the backstory more. The Scotsman says it best: "It is the most adept of psychological thrillers, in which--as with Hannah's other novels--the psychosis lying just below the surface of the human personality is exposed." That of course makes the story quite a bit longer--at 450 pages, The Cradle in the Grave is one of the longer mysteries I've read. And unlike some of the other books of that length, it is not one of those rollercoaster-chasey novels. There's a denseness here and if you read too quickly, you'll lose some strands of the plotline.

Much like the three women (Hines, Jaggard, and Yardley) who make up the mothers accused of murdering their children, I am finding threes everywhere connected to Hannah's story.  To my knowledge, this is Hannah's third time in Milwaukee, and we have three readers on Hannah's new novel, which besides me, consists of Sharon and Anne.  Anne's mystery group also read The Dead Lie Down on September 22.  I was hoping to attend, but as folks who read this blog know, I was in Seattle. Want to join our mystery book club?  They meet on the third Monday of each month, at 7 pm.

I've got some reviews for you in threes too.  Here's Rebecca Armstrong in the Independent, meditating on the protagonists, which I have actually spent little time on: "Hannah has given Waterhouse rather more backbone than in his previous outing, even if he and Zailer's engagement is still as dysfunctional as ever. But it's this dysfunction that makes Hannah's characters so human. They're plagued with doubt, embarrassment and regret, living flawed lives as best they can." Read the whole review here.

Jeremy Jehu in the Telegraph posits that "Sophie Hannah has a poet’s eye, and she creates characters and settings of closely observed complexity in her psychological mysteries." More on their website.

I can't find the link, but Hannah has the Daily Express review on her website: "‘When it comes to ingenious plots that twist and turn like a fairground rollercoaster few writers can match Sophie Hannah. This complex and beautifully written tale kept me guessing right till the very last page."

Can I analyze this text any further? Sure I can! That's why tomorrow's blog post is about changing Sophie Hannah's titles for the American market. I've also put together a lovely jacket design for Nothing but Love, Helen Yardley's memoir. And don't forget--Sophie Hannah is at Boswell on Monday, September 19, 7 pm.

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