Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly email about things I’ve read

Sophie Hannah, the Simon Waterhouse/Charlie Zailer series

Front cover illustration Kind of Cruel

Sophie Hannah is the author chosen by Agatha Christie’s heirs to write an authorized continuation to the Hercule Poirot series. That was The Monogram Murders (2014) and it was followed by three more Poriot novels. The new Poirots have been well received but I haven’t (yet) read any of them. Sophie Hannah was arguably the obvious choice to revive Christie’s detective.

From 2006, she had been writing a series of mystery novels set in and around Spilling CID in the fictional Culver Valley, about an hour-and-a-half by train from London. These mysteries are — among other things, as we’ll see — puzzle stories: they usually start with an outlandish, apparently inexplicable situation that eventually turns out, when viewed from a totally different angle, to make some degree of sense.

An insomniac woman is obsessed with the fact that, seven years previously, her host and the host’s family disappeared without explanation for all of Christmas day, then reappeared unharmed but tightlipped. A poetry-loving accountant whose friends think he’s a charismatic genius confesses to having murdered his paralysed wife, but insists that he has no idea why he did it, and rejects all the suggested motives. An inexperienced documentary producer suddenly has her salary trebled and is put in charge of the pet project of a famous campaigning journalist when he moves to a different company without warning. A nervous woman lies about her reasons for conspicuously avoiding, eight times in one day, driving past the house where a controversial newspaper columnist has just been murdered — she had never met him but for a while had commented with uncritical enthusiasm on his columns. You know the kind of thing.

I reread four of the novels in the series in 11 days so as to write about them here, and I was struck by something that I don’t think I had previously noticed: they all follow a very particular and rather complex pattern. They start with some kind of document: a news report, a trial exhibit or statement, some correspondence. This is set in a sans serif font and is in most cases quite short, like a prologue. But similar documents recur throughout the novel, like punctuation.

Next we get the first-person narrative of a character who is under considerable pressure. In each the four examples I’m going to look at here, that character is a woman. (As far as I can remember, that’s true of all the novels in the series that I’ve read, which is to say all but the two most recent.) The first-person chapters alternate with others in the third person, which describe the activities of Spilling CID, with the occasional document interspersed. (Both the first- and third-person chapters are set in a serif font, the interspersed documents revert to sans.)

I’ve mentioned before the dangers of trying to combine first- and third-person narratives in the same story. Hannah uses the combination very effectively. In part, it shows how the various elements of the mystery are seen differently from diverse perspectives, but it also also allows her to develop detailed character studies of the first-person narrators and to draw the reader’s attention to parallels and resemblances between those characters and the Spilling detectives.

These women tend to be resourceful, even formidable, but also under threat and quite near to the end of their respective thethers. In the first book I want to look at, Kind of Cruel (2012), the seventh in the series, that character is Amber Hewerdine, the insomniac who can’t stop mulling over the puzzling events of an earlier Christmas. Despairing of ever being able to find a cure for her insomnia, she goes to see a hypnotherapist. As she emerges from her hypnotic trance, she utters a phrase, “Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel”, that she doesn’t recognize and has no recollection of having seen or read anywhere. Unfortunately for her, impressions on a notepad at the scene of a murder show that the phrase had been written on a sheet subsequently torn from the pad, and Amber finds herself being brought in for questioning.

Of course, Amber had never heard of the murder victim but she has been affected by another murder two years earlier when her best friend was killed in an arson attack. As a result of that attack, Amber and her husband became the guardians of the friend’s two daughters, Dinah (now 8) and Nonie (6). The relationship between the two murders is complex and tangled and the motive for both seems to be the desire of a narcissistic woman, who likes to appear self-sacrificing and welcoming to all, to avoid having her widowed father-in-law living with her, but without appearing to refuse him shelter. The “diagnosis” of narcissism, by the way, comes from Amber’s hypnotherapist, Ginny Saxon.

Even after he’s obtained a full, clear confession from the killer, backed up by physical evidence, Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse doesn’t feel that he will have solved the case until he persuades the narcissist to acknowledge her motives. He doesn’t need to prove motive to get a conviction and there’s no doubt about the woman’s guilt, yet her refusal to say why she killed two people leaves him believing that he has failed.

Simon is the Department’s brilliant crime-solver, able (eventually) to make sense of the cryptic clues and fit the pieces of the puzzle together. He is also socially awkward, insensitive to others’ needs and feelings, quick-tempered and demanding. He refuses to seek promotion to sergeant, remaining a DC, and has given up trying to conceal his detestation of Detective Inspector Giles Proust, aka “the Snowman”, who is universally hated and is probably himself something of a narcissist. All the Snowman’s underlings except Simon fear as well as hate him.

Since book 6, Lasting Damage (2011), Simon has been married to Sergeant Charlie Zailer, having previously been engaged to her. Charlie used to be the “skipper”, the Detective Sergeant next in line to Proust in CID, and therefore Simon’s boss. She left CID after she had the bad luck/judgment to sleep with a man who turned out to be a chillingly misogynistic serial killer. At the time of the four novels under discussion, Charlie is working in suicide prevention. She goes to see Ginny Saxon the hypnotherapist, ostensibly to help her quit smoking but really in the hope that she can find a way to fall out of love with her husband, who is refusing to have sex with her, even after a year of marriage.

Simon eventually explains to Charlie that he isn’t having sex with her because he can’t help thinking of it as private — too private to share even with the person who’s supposed to be his sexual partner! (Of course, he doesn’t approve of doing it completely alone either.) Charlie asks Ginny Saxon about Simon’s behavioural oddities — presenting this as a question about one of her potential suicide cases — and Ginny suggests a possible cause, one that Charlie can’t possibly talk to Simon about. Ginny’s suggestion is that Simon’s mother had been overly needy and dependant on her son during his childhood, stunting his emotional development.

I’m inclined to think we shouldn’t trust Ginny: she’s quite cavalier about sharing some client information with the police and even with Amber; she has rules about interaction with patients that she routinely breaks, and she tells Charlie that she can find more information about Simon’s supposed condition on Google — which may be where Ginny herself found it). On the other hand, Ginny’s suggestion does fit with what the reader knows, from earlier books, about Simon’s family background.

In the next book in the series, The Carrier (2014), Simon again becomes preoccupied with an admitted killer’s motive, though he already has a solid case for prosecution. Tim Breary is the poetry-loving accountant who admits to having held a pillow over the face of his paralyzed wife but claims not to know why. Breary’s close friends think he’s an idiosyncratic genius — brilliant, witty, sensitive and unconventional — but the reader is likely to suspect that their perception has been distorted by the role he played in making them rich.

His wife, Francine, had been very controlling — possibly, it’s hinted, because of her own insecurity. According to Kerry, one of his admiring friends, “Tim gave up trying to communicate with you within a week of marrying you” (p. 2). Clearly, the marriage had not been a happy one, but Tim stubbornly insisted that he would never leave Francine. And then he did. He rationalized the inconsistency by saying that he was leaving his life and starting a new one — that this also involved leaving Francine was just incidental.

Not long before he left, he had repeated to Gaby Strothers his determination never to abandon the marriage. Gaby is the narrator of the first-person chapters. She and Tim had fallen in love when he had found investors to enable her to develop a brilliant business idea. Her first company sold for $48 million, which was the source of Kerry’s wealth — she and her husband, Dan, had been among the investors that Tim introduced to Gaby.

Once Tim and Gaby had acknowledged that they were in love, Tim had urged her to go away, as there was no future for their relationship. Now, Gaby flies to international meetings, trying to establish her next successful business and avoiding her appalling boyfriend. Gaby is a bit of a snob, an appealing character without being exactly sympathetic, impatient with people who don’t share her drive and dedication to work (the boyfriend excepted, at least for a while), and exasperated by the gaps in others’ education. She gets to know Lauren, the care assistant who discovered Francine’s body.

Hannah’s handling of the relationship between Lauren and Gaby is one of the high points of the book. Lauren refers to Gaby (with justification) as being “stuck-up” and “snooty”, while Gaby is periodically infuriated by Lauren’s slowness on the uptake. For all that, they cooperate most of the time and try to help each other. They default to liking each other, except when regularly reminded of the reasons why they shouldn’t.

The most recent of the books I want to look at — there are two more novels in the series that I haven’t read yet — is The Telling Error (2014). The first-person narrator here is Nicki Clements, the married mother of two children. Nicki is an experienced and normally cool-headed liar but, as Simon figures out, she tends to get nervous and flustered when her lies have something to do with cars. That’s why, when attempting to explain her suspicious behaviour near the house where abrasive, insulting columnist Damon Blundy has been murdered, she impulsively claims that she avoided a police checkpoint because she had been driving with a broken wing mirror, though CCTV shows that it was intact. That’s the telling error of the title.

Nicki needs to be a good liar. She has been conducting a secret, anonymous cyberaffair online with a man calling himself Gavin. She eventually comes to suspect (correctly) that Gavin is just another screenname used by her previous cybersex partner, “King Edward VII”, who had falsely told her that he was actually Damon Blundy. Blundy, the murder victim, had indeed been having a secret affair, though not with Nicki, whose former practice of posing approving comments on Blundy’s columns confused the issue as far as the police were concerned.

As a child, Nicki had been subjected to almost daily furious and lengthy harangues by her father on the subject of her lies. Much later, after she has left home, she finds out that her parents had been paying her younger brother, Lee, to inform on her. Nicki still loves Lee as she did when he was a child but prefers to think of him as a child. Then her best friend, Melissa, marries Lee, making it hard for Nicki to avoid meeting him as an adult, and putting her friendship with Melissa under strain.

At one point during her childhood, Nicki’s father had pretended to take her to an asylum to be committed until she could be cured of her lying. This, he claimed, was necessary to protect the family, and in particular young Lee. This is an example of a recurring theme in the stories: the sometimes extreme cruelty directed against children, usually by their parents.

I’ve already mentioned Simon’s difficulties in this regard. Early in The Carrier, he’s visited at home by Giles Proust’s daughter, who has changed her first name from Amanda to Regan. She tells him that the Snowman’s behaviour at home is no more bearable than that at work. The police are able to connect the two murders in Kind of Cruel only because the narcissistic killer thought it a good idea to take her two young chidren along when she went to bash in the head of someone who had the bad luck to know her slightly a few years previously.

In the earliest of the books I’m looking at, 2010’s A Room Swept White one of the three women belatedly exonerated for the murders of their infant children turns out to have been guilty after all of having killed her two sons and perhaps attempting to smother her daughter. This book stands somewhat apart from the others I’m discussing in this post. The puzzle element isn’t nearly as much of a brain-teaser as those of the other books, and the narrator of the first-person passages isn’t one of the most interesting or compelling female characters in the story.

She is Fliss Benson, a junior documentary producer who is given an unexpected and vertiginous promotion, without the opportunity to say no. She’s to be in charge of a documentary about the wrongful conviction for murder of several women whose infant children died suddenly. The programme had been the passionate personal campaign of her recent boss, Laurie Nattrass, who had suddenly accepted a long-standing offer to move to another company.

Laurie Nattrass has been wholly caught up in a years-long campaign to free the women convicted of — or in one case still awaiting trial for — killing their infant children. Now that the women are free, his priority is to pillory and destroy the career of the pediatric forensic pathologist whose evidence led to the charges and convictions. Dr Judith Duffy turns out not to be the blinkered zealot that Nattrass would like to paint her as, but an expert witness who made a mistake in one case, and who saw her evidence in another distorted and misinterpreted.

Several of the characters, including one woman who spent several years in prison as a result of Dr Duffy’s error, worry that if the scientific evidence in these cases is treated with too much suspicion, real murders will go undetected. There isn’t a simple, unequivocal test that points infallibly to guilt or innocence. The two murders — both of adults — that are being investigated by the Spilling CID have been committed by a man who has become obsessed with being able to divine the truth. He has devised an ingenious — though still not foolproof — test that is horrifying in its brutality and its indifference to the suffering of the “subject”: a twenty-first century equivalent of the ducking-stool.

So, these novels are about much more than the puzzles they set up. The solutions are entertaining, but the stories also offer a dissection of dysfunctional family (and workplace) dynamics, with insights into what I like to think of as abnormal though remarkably prevalent psychology. They should stand up to rereading even if you have a better memory for plots than I have.

The next issue, about Ian McEwan’s spy stories, will be two weeks from now, on 22 or 23 October. After that, I’ll move back to the every-second-Wednesday schedule, so the following post will be on 2 November.


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