The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah (2016)

Over the course of nine books and books and nine fiendishly complicated cases investigated by the Spilling police force I have had some ups and downs. I have read some fabulous stories, with the kind of wonderfully twisty plot that no-one else I can think of could produce; and even when I have found failings they have been balanced by good things that have stopped the lows being too low.

I could tell you where each of those first nine books comes on that scale but not this one.

It’s a strange one.

It follows has many of the same features as the books that came before, but thing are a little different this time around.

The scenario is a little less inventive than usual; it could have come from one of those contemporary crime novels that I like the look of but don’t really feel the need to read..

The story opens with the Spilling detectives working with two other police forces, trying to catch a killer they are calling ‘Billy Dead Mates’. He has killed two pairs of best friends; not together, one at a time. Each of them has been killed in their own home, shot dead with no sign of a struggle or of forced entry.

There is nothing to link the two pairs of friends.

Except that each of them had been given a small white book in which a single line of poetry has been written.

27775303That was the touch that told me that this was Sophie Hannah.

The story needed something to elevate it, and it had something.

It had the draft manuscript of a book by Kim Tribbeck, a stand-up comedian who had been caught up in the case.

She had been given one of the small white books, but she hadn’t died, and she didn’t have a best friend. She had an ex husband, she had an ex lover, but she wasn’t close to anyone at all.

Her narrative voice was wonderful, and though she wasn’t likeable she was a fascinating character.

I was sorry that she spent so much time entangled in a sub plot with one of the Spilling detectives.  They’re interesting at work, but when the story looks into their personal lives it just don’t work. Enough!

There was a radical feminist writer caught up in the case too. She was convinced that the killings were femicide, ignoring the fact that one of the four friends was male, and she was receiving letters arguing with her position on just about everything from somebody who might or might not of been the killer.

There were stories too; some of them from a rare book that had been given to Kim by her former lover.

And so you have it:

Crime + Comedy + Literature + Satire + Radical Feminism

None of the elements were great on their own, but they came together to make a fabulous, page-turning story.

I had an idea of who the killer was, but I didn’t know how or why. When the answer came, I realised that the clues had been there.

That’s not what I expect from Sophie Hannah. I’m used to her tying a plot into complex knots that appear impossible to undo, then throwing the whole thing up into the air with a flourish and having it land as a clear picture, that I never would have foreseen but I had to acknowledge made sense.

The answer was both inspired and ludicrous. The logic worked but it was so improbable.

I had to love it. But I can understand why others don’t.

I accept that the world of this book isn’t quite like the real world, and it isn’t quite like the world you find in other crime novels either.

It allows Sophie Hannah to create intriguing puzzles, to say things about the state of the world, and to do things that no other crime writer can.

I hope she’ll go on doing it for a very long time, and I’m already looking forward to seeing what she’ll do next

A Game for all the Family by Sophie Hannah (2015)

This is the book that I’ve been waiting for Sophie Hannah to write: an intricate, complex, impossible mystery that seems unsolvable and yet has an utterly logical solution, free from the encumberances of a series

At least, it’s nearly that book. It was intriguing, it was compelling, but it wasn’t quite as perfect as it might have been – as it needed to be to really work.

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The set-up is brilliant:

A family is moving, out of London to a big house set deep in Devon, in the Dart valley. Justine has given up a high-powered media job, and she wants to cut all of her ties with that life. Because her husband, Alex, is a successful opera singer she can do that; and her daughter, Ellen, can be enrolled in an exclusive private school with an excellent reputation.

While the car is moving slowly through congested streets, a suburban house catches Justine’s attention, and she knows that – for reasons she doesn’t quite understand – it will be important to her. When she explains why she seems distracted, her husband and daughter tease her. She changes the subject, but she doesn’t forget.

At first it seems that the move has been a great success, but it isn’t long before there are complications.

Justine receives threatening anonymous telephone calls. When a name is mentioned, Justine protests that she isn’t that person, that she has no idea who she is. But the caller insists that she is, and every fact that she mention correlates with the facts of her life.

And then Ellen is disturbed when her friend George is expelled from school. She believes that to be unjust, and when she explains why her mother agrees. Justine approaches the school, but she is told that there never was a George, and that there has never been an expulsion. But the way she is told, the way she is handled, make her quite sure that her daughter is right and that the school has something to hide.

She links the school situation and her anonymous calls, and she sets out to find out what is going on. It was classic Sophie Hannah, without the dull detectives, of the Culver Valley, and there was more. There was something else that really elevated this book.

Ellen had a writing project for school. Justine picked up the first few pages, and she found that it was a murder mystery set in their new house. It didn’t feel like Ellen’s work – not the content, not the style, not the strange names – but she insisted that it was, and she refused to explain or to share any more of her work.

That became a story within a story. And with a touch of the gothic, and a dash of black humour, I have to say that it was a more engaging and more thought-provoking story than Justine’s.

I had to keep turning the pages, because the book was so well written, the puzzle was so fascinating, and the characters – though not likeable – were intriguing. I needed answers, I needed to know what was fact and what was fiction, and I needed to work out who – if anyone – was reliable.

There were some answers as the story progressed, but there were more questions.

This is the kind of book where you need to trust the author and accept some things that see ridiculously improbable. I can – and I love the complex puzzle and the twisted logic – but I can understand why many can’t and don’t. I think that Sophie Hannah’s books engage the logical part of my brain that makes me an accountant as well as the part that makes me a reader, and without those two part working together I doubt that the books would work for me.

One character – in Ellen’s story – said that the clues were there. They were, and I spotted some of them.

And another character – in Justine’s story – said, after something happened, that it made them realise that they would never have answers to some of their questions. I felt like that too, and it was a problem.

Ellen’s story was wrapped up very cleverly, but the deouement of Justine’s felt messy. It was compelling, it was clever, many questions were answered, but not all of them, and I was left a little disappointed.

It also made me look back and realise that there had been unnecessary details and complications in Justine’s story; it wasn’t as well executed as her daughter’s writing assignment.

I loved my journey through this book, I found much too love, but this time the puzzle was just a little too twisted to be satisfactorily solved.

But I do hope that Sophie Hannah write more stand-alone books, because there is no one else quite like her, and I know that when she gets it just right the results will be truly exceptional.