The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah has an extraordinary talent. She takes an array of fine ingredients:

  • Complex, believable heroines.
  • Unusual, seemingly impossible, crimes.
  • Thought-provoking, contemporary concerns

And she ties them up into complex knots that appear impossible to undo, before throwing the whole thing up into the air with a flourish and having it land as a clear picture, that you could never have foreseen but that you have to accept makes perfect sense.

That makes distinctive and compelling crime fiction.


I had decided that I wasn’t going to rush to read this book, after being horribly disappointed by the book that preceded it. But I wavered when I saw it, because so many of the books before that were very, very good. It seemed that it might be a return to form …..

Yes, I think it is a return to form, but not to her very best. Not quite.

The crime scene is striking.

An opinionated newspaper writer has been found dead, bound and gagged, on a chair in front the computer in his home office. A knife has been taped over his mouth and the words “HE IS NO LESS DEAD” have been written on the wall.

It fell to Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse and his colleagues in the Culver Valley police force to investigate.

First they spoke to his wife, who had stumbled into the crime scene with a cup of tea. She said that she had heard nothing, because she had been in another part of the house with the radio on, leaving her husband with the peace he wanted to work. And she said that she was sure  that the murder is linked to the fact that her husband never really loved her; she knew that, even  though he had played that role of loving, caring doting husband to perfection.

The dead man’s columns lead the police to a number of suspects.

  • An athlete who was a drug cheat.
  • A rival pundit accused of hypocrisy
  • A bestselling author who has behave badly
  • A former MP, charged with hypocrisy too.

But the most interesting of all of the suspects was Nicki Clements, a married mother of two, and the woman that the story spun around.

When the police were stopping traffic outside the crime scene she did a U turn to avoid them, because she didn’t want a particular police officer to see her. She took longer routes several times that day, between her home and her children’s school, to avoid that particular road. And of course that was noticed. She might not be guilty of murder, but she was definitely guilty of something.

Nikki is  a wonderfully-realised character: a woman with an unhappy past, with difficult family relationships, with a gap in her life that she tries to fill her online. That leads her into no end of trouble ….

‘The Telling Error’ is a wonderful puzzle, mixed up with analysis of modern marriage, of celebrity culture, and of social media – very much a book of the here and now.

It was the eclectic cast of characters who made the story work. Each had their own story, their own mystery, and they had such psychological depth. They weren’t likeable, but they were fascinating. And horribly believable.

The police characters were on the back burner this time around, and the story was much the better for it.

It seems impossible that there will be a solution that explains everything, but there is. And there were revelations along the way that made the story twist and turn, and increases the intrigue. The explanation for Nikki’s U turn was particularly striking.

One or two points stretched credulity too far, but when so many things are done so well I can forgive that quite easily.

I was gripped from the first page to the last, and I will be rushing to grab a copy of whatever Sophie Hannah writes next.

The Carrier by Sophie Hannah

Oh, Sophie!

Over the course of seven books and seven fiendishly complicated cases investigated by the Spilling police force we have had some ups and downs. There have been more fabulous stories, and even when there have been flaws they have been balanced by good things that have stopped the lows being too low.

Until now. There are good things in The Carrier, but they were weighed down by things that weren’t so good, and things that just didn’t work.

The premise was, as always, far-fetched and brilliant:

the-carrierWhen her plane was delayed overnight, successful businesswoman Gaby Struthers stepped in to calm a young woman, an inexperienced traveller, who was distressed by the situation. They shared a hotel room, and as they spoke Gaby realised that Lauren was scared of her. She had no idea why.

And then Lauren began to speak about an innocent man who was going to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Gaby slowly realised that she was talking about the man she loved and lost.

Tim Breary had left his wife for Gaby, but something had gone horribly wrong between them, and when his wife suffered a devastating stroke he went home.

Now Francine was dead, Tim had confessed to her murder, and Lauren, her carer, insisted that he was innocent.

That was a set-up with potential.

But I struggled from the start, because I couldn’t find anyone to identify with.

Usually I find Sophie Hannah’s heroines intriguing: capable women faced with extraordinary situations, who want to find out, and who may not be entirely reliable. Gaby fitted the mould, but she was a little too cool, a little too capable, and it was a little too obvious that she wasn’t telling all that she knew.

And there was no one else. Everyone involved in the Breary case was holding something back, and worse I didn’t believe in any of them. Not the characters, and definitely not the relationships.

Why did Tim marry, stay with, return to, a ghastly, manipulative woman like Francine? Why did his friends, Kerry and Dan, turn their own lives upside-down to support them? What did Gaby stay in a relationship with Sean, when they didn’t even like each other?

I have no answers. What I do have is a feeling that Sophie Hannah wanted to write about abusive relationships, but if that was the case she compromised that by working those stories into an ineffective crime story.

There were dialogues, interrogations, and letters written to a woman who would never be able to read them, that were psychologically pitch-perfect, and utterly readable, and there were moments when I was intrigued.

But the plot didn’t expand and grow; there weren’t the twists and turns that I had expected. Just one dramatic event near the end of the book, which was effective but a little forced.

And the business of ‘The Carrier’ was a bit of a side-issue. I suspect it was there to  allow the author to thread her love of poetry though the story, and she did it well but it felt like a distraction, something else sitting where the development of the story and the characters should have been.

There were ideas that went undeveloped, there were loose ends, but I held on, in hope, until the very end.

The final resolution to the story was right.

But it made me realise that there was a simpler story, a story of dysfunctional relationships, a story of a particular type of crime, trying to get out of this rather large, rather messy book.

It leaves me wondering of Sophie Hannah is bored with the kind of books she’s writing, and if she wants to write something different. If that is the case, I wish she would. I loved the books she wrote before she turned to crime fiction, and I even can remember being disappointed that she had gone down that route when I first spotted ‘Little Face.’

And look how well moving away from crime fiction – albeit of a very different kind – has served Kate Atkinson!

But whatever Sophie Hannah writes next I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, because while the  ‘The Carrier’ is a disappointing book Sophie Hannah is still an interesting author.

Ten Library Books and Ten Very Good Reasons for Placing a Reservation.

A few weeks ago I ditched the idea of restricting library reservations and changed my project into one to celebrate the magic of library reservations.

The Library Reservations Project1

There are so many things that can spark a search, and it’s wonderful what you can find, in reserve stock or in other libraries, just by running a simple search.

So here’s a list of ten books – a couple that have come home, a couple that are waiting at the library, a few that I have on order and a few more that I plan to order very soon.

What Not by Rose Macaulay

‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ made me want to read more of Rose Macaulay’s books. Most of all I wanted to read ‘What Not’ –  a book she wrote during the Great War, inspired by her work at the Ministry of Information and her new love affair with Gerald O’Donovan. That relationship would continue until his death, in 1942. The book is out of print and I’ve never come across a copy, but I found one in the library’s fiction reserve.

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort

When this appeared as a group read for the GoodReads Bright Young Things I realised that I new very little about Nancy Astor. Save that she was American, that she was the first woman MP to take her seat, and that her constituency was in Plymouth. I’m curious but I can’t justify buying a book only available in hardback that I’ll probably read only once. The library has a few copies scattered around the county, so I placed an order.

Yew Hall by Lucy M Boston

A mention of Lucy M Boston’s memoirs in the comments that followed Hayley’s lovely post  about Rumer Godden’s ‘A Fugue in Time’ sent me scurrying to the library catalogue. The book was there. And I spotted Lucy M Boston’s first novel, a story of a house with a long history, written for ‘new adults’ and thought it might sit well on the 1954 slot in my Century of Books.

Jambusters: The Story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War by Julie Summers

One book caught my eye in the window of The End of the World Bookshop with Briar one evening last week. It wasn’t in the library catalogue when I looked for it later that evening, but I put it on to my ‘please add it to stock’ list and a few days later it appeared.

At this point I must say that I do visit bookshops in opening hours and I do buy new books, but I lack both the budget for hardbacks and the patience to wait for more affordable paperback editions.

The Carrier by Sophie Hannah

This is a simple case of knowing a ‘must read’ author had a new book coming out, watching for it to come into stock and then getting my order in. I’ll probably add a copy to my collection when out in paperback but I couldn’t wait that long and I could see copies going on to library shelves up and down the county ….

Carnival by Compton Mackenzie

I’d never thought to find out what Compton Mackenzie had written beyond
Whisky Galore, Monarch of the Glen, and diaries. But Hayley’s post about The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett intrigued me. Now I’ve looked I’ve found a far more interesting author than I’d ever  realised, and I’ve ordered Carnival, from 1912, a story of theatrical folk with a Cornish connection to fill a gap in my Century of Books.

Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube by Andrew Martin

Last year’s new edition of ‘Poems from the Undergound’ made me nostalgic for my commuting days and so when I spotted Karen buying this book I added it to my wishlist. And when she mentioned a reference to Dorothy Whipple I placed my order.

The Lovely Ship by Storm Jameson

When I saw mention of a trilogy by Storm Jameson in ‘We Write as Women,’ I thought it would be ‘The Mirror in Darkness’ trilogy that I read years ago. But it wasn’t, it was another trilogy telling the story, beginning in the 1840s, of a woman who was heir to a great shipbuilding company. I was intrigued, the first book came from a year still to be filled in my century of books, and so I placed an order.

Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes by Judith Mackrell

I spotted ‘Flappers’ when Cate pinned the oh so striking cover, and I immediately went to add it to my wishlist. It was then that I spotted and other intriguing title by Judith Mackrell. I’d already bought two books that day and I couldn’t justify another so I checked the library catalogue. There are two copies further up the county.

Summer Visits by Margery Sharp

If only somebody would reissue Margery Sharp’s novels I would rush out and buy them all. But as nobody has – yet – I pick up used copies where I can and I order others that the library has and I haven’t found when the mood strikes. ‘Summer Visits’ sounded so appealing on a cool, grey day …

And that’s ten!

A Box of Books for 2012

I love reading bookish reviews of the year, but this year I have struggled to write one of my own.

A list – be it a top ten, a top twenty, a list by categories – felt too stark, too cut and dried. And I couldn’t find a questionnaire that worked for me.

But then, yesterday, inspiration struck.

I would assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books. They would be books that had offered something to my heart, my mind, or my soul, in what has been a difficult year.

And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, either my thoughts when I read it or a quotation that had picked up to remind me why that book was in my box.

I found that I had twenty-five books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, as a few of them were little Penguin books and one of them was even littler than that. Though I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …

Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.

And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!

Year end4

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Often the books you love are the most difficult to write about. How do you capture just what makes them so very, very magical? Diving Belles is one of those books.It hold twelve short stories. Contemporary stories that are somehow timeless. Because they are suffused with the spirit of Cornwall, the thing that I can’t capture in words that makes the place where I was born so very, very magical.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. History records that only two women and five children survived the siege … An extraordinary story. And the foundation upon which Alice Hoffman has built an epic novel. An extraordinary novel.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn

“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken. There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day. But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift; a realignment of my trajectory. It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.”

Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

I read such wonderful prose:  compelling storytelling mixed with vivid descriptions. The sights, the sounds, the smells assaulted my senses.  And I learned terrible things that I might rather have not known, but that I never for one moment doubted were true. Nothing is more frightening than the evil that men do. I heard wonderful echoes of more than one great Victorian novelist; and I saw knowledge, understanding, and great love for their works.

Year end3

The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. “

Alys Always by Harriet Lane

This is a story that brings a clever mixture of influences together beautifully. It could be Patricia Highsmith writing with Barbara Pym. Or Anita Brookner writing with Barbara Vine perhaps. But no, it’s Harriet Lane, and she has created something that is entirely her own. She writes with both elegance and clarity, she balances suspense with acute observation, and she understands her characters, their relationships, the worlds they move in absolutely perfectly.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

I read ‘The View from Downshire Hill,’ Elizabeth Jenkins’ sadly out-of-print autobiography a few year ago and so I was familiar with the story of ‘Harriet’ before I was able to read the book. I knew exactly what would happen, but still I was captivated. Because Elizabeth Jenkins wrote so beautifully, and with such understanding of the characters she recreated, and of their psychology.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The prose is sparse, the story is short, and yet it holds so much. Every character is simply but perfectly drawn, and each and every one is important. Just a few words of description, a few words of dialogue painted wonderful pictures of lives and relationships. And of a place and time.

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

“The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books – shelves full of them – which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for “improving” books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story.”

Year end2

The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

A carriage pulled up outside. Mrs Anna Palmer, the young wife of an elderly clergyman arrived. She thought she had come to meet friends of her husband, but she was wrong. She had been very cleverly tricked, and she found herself incarcerated in Lake House, a private asylum for gentlewomen. First she was astonished and then she was outraged. But she was utterly trapped. By the power of a cruel husband, by the strictures of Victorian society, and by her own nature.

White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

“And then, of a sudden, the trees seem to fall back on either side, disclosing with the effect of a fanfare of trumpets breaking through a murmur of muted strings, above, an enormous expanse of blue sky, and below, a wide sward of turf, most piercingly green within the woods’ dense circlet. And in the midst of the green sward stood a house.”

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

“I am reading reading reading, locked in the stories. I am a wicked daughter, a drunken witch, a terrible scientist, a king with a severed hand, a resentful angel, a statue of a golden prince, the roaring wind, an uninspired alchemist, a fantastic lover who has only one leg, a stage magician with glittery nails, a shivery queen with a box of Turkish sweets, a prostitute wearing poisoned lipstick, a piano player whose hands are too big, a raggedy grey rabbit, a murderer with metal teeth, a spy with an hourglass figure … I am eighteen years old and my real life is here locked inside these books.

Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford Johnson

It is a love story, set in London’s theatre world in the latter days of Queen Victoria’s reign. And it is a tour de force, balancing the recreation of a world, a cast of utterly real characters, and a perfectly constructed plot quite beautifully.

Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.” As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.”

Year end5

Shelter by Frances Greenslade

Forty years ago, two sisters were growing up, in a small town, set in the wild countryside of British Columbia. Maggie and Jenny Dillon lived in an unfinished cabin home with their quiet reliable father, Patrick, and their imaginative, free-spirited mother, Irene. A happy family. Maggie tells their story. And she tells it beautifully. Her voice rang true and she made me see her world, her sister, her father, her mother. I understood how the family relationships worked, I understood what was important to them. And I saw enough to understand one or two things that Maggie didn’t.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

“All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.’ And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under- clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. “

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

They settled into their holiday routine. Mr Stevens secured a beach hut, and they would bathe, play ball on the sand, watch the world go by. They would visit familiar attractions too. And journey out into the surrounding countryside. There was time and space to think too. Mr Stevens worried about his position in the world. Dick wondered where he was going in life, what possibilities were open to him. Mary fell in love. And Mrs Stevens broke with convention to sit down with he landlady, to offer a sympathetic ear when she spoke of her concerns about the future. Lives were changing, and the world was changing.

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Amber Hewerdine was losing sleep, and it really wasn’t surprising. Her best friend died in an arson attack, the arsonist had never been identified, and now Amber and her husband, Luke, were bringing up her friend’s two young daughters. An incident that happened at a family Christmas spent in a holiday cottage was still troubling her. Luke’s sister, her husband and their two young sons disappeared on Christmas day, not returning until the next morning when the refused to give any explanation of what had happened. And things got worse …

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered. I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.

Year end1

Thérèse Racquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse was the daughter of a French sailor and a native woman. Her father her to took his sister, a haberdasher, to raise with her son. Camille, a bright but sickly child. It was expected that Thérèse and Camille would marry, and marry they did. Not because either one had feelings for the another, but because it didn’t occur to either of them to do anything else, or that life could offer anything more than they already knew. Zola painted a picture of dark and dull lives, and yet he held me. Somehow, I don’t know how, he planted the idea that something would happen, that it was imperative that I continued to turn the pages.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant. It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.

The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy

As I read The Other Half of Me, Morgan McCarthy’s first novel, I heard echoes of many other stories. Stories of lives lived in grand country houses. Stories of troubled families harbouring dark secrets. Stories of privileged, but troubled, lives … and yet, through all of that, I heard a new and distinctive story.

The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

Blackboys was home, and its faded grandeur gave him beauty, comfort, and a place in the world, a point in history. He came to realise that slowly, as he walked through galleries full of family portraits, as he looked across beautiful gardens towards rolling hills, as he sat, peacefully in his  wood-pannelled library.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

“Mass hysterical outbreaks rarely have identifiable inceptions, but the date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September, when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grand-mother with a nail-gun to the neck. The attack took place in a family living room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no-one drops litter, and where you can hear bird-song…”

And now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2012?

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Amber Hewerdine was losing sleep, and it really wasn’t surprising.

Her best friend died in an arson attack, the arsonist had never been identified, and now Amber and her husband, Luke, were bringing up her friend’s two young daughters.

An incident that happened at a family Christmas spent in a holiday cottage was still troubling her. Luke’s sister, her husband and their two young sons disappeared on Christmas day, not returning until the next morning when the refused to give any explanation of what had happened.

And things got worse. When Amber took positive action to deal with her insomnia, visiting a psychotherapist, she found herself under arrest. ‘Kind, cruel, kind of cruel,’ she said. She didn’t know what it meant, where the words came from, they just came into her head.

The impression of those words had been found on a notepad in the room where Katherine Allen had been found, beaten to death with an iron bar. The police had no idea what they meant.

That’s how Sophie Hannah set up another fiendishly complicated mystery.

She gave it a few clever twists, and then she offered up a solution that was entirely credible but pretty unguessable. I realised about two-thirds of the way through the book who the murderer would probably be. And I was right, but I couldn’t put all of the pieces of the puzzle into place until the very end of the book.

I loved watching those pieces fall into place.

There were one or two niggles but they were more than made up for by many, many wonderful things. I’m not mentioning specifics, because they really aren’t things you’d want to know before you read the book.

I loved observing the characters. They weren’t overly likeable, but they were interesting, believable and complex. Real, three-dimensional human beings.

And there was none of the slight feeling of ennui I’ve experienced once or twice with Sophie Hannah’s leading ladies: Amber was definitely a one-off. She was an intelligent woman; she was a professional; she’d clearly worked to build a strong relationship with the daughters she inherited ; she had with strong – and sometimes unconventional – opinions, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, though she understood that sometimes it was wiser not to… A great character.

I was enthralled by some wonderful dialogue: between Amber and her two girls, between Amber and the Spilling detectives, between Amber and her usually warm but sometimes spiky sister-in law, Jo.There were times when I could have happily just followed those conversations even if there had been no mystery to be resolved.

The stories of the various members of the Spilling police force evolved nicely, and the mix of their story, Amber’s story and the psychotherapists’ narrative worked very well.

I’m a little tired though of the troubled relationship between Simon and Charlie though, and I think it’s time to call a halt. It’s become a little tiresome, and it so clearly isn’t going to work out.

Otherwise though Sophie Hannah was at the top of her game, and Kind of Cruel was pretty much perfect.

An intriging puzzle and a psychological thriller perfectly balanced.

And all I have left to say is – MORE PLEASE!

Crime Fiction: The A to Z

When I set out on Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet I promised myself two things.

The first was that I would read nothing just for the sake of filling a slot, that I would only read books that I would have picked up sooner or later anyway.

I’ve managed that, though I did have to bend the rules a little for the difficult letter X and I had to throw in an emergency short story when the book I’d picked for letter Y let me down.

The second was that I would mix things up, and choose some familiar and some less familiar books.

And so my list is made up of:

  • Persephone books for H and X, and a classic short story by a Persephone author for G.
  •  A Virago Modern Classic, and a winner of the CWA Gold Dagger to boot,  for K.
  •  A wonderful anthology of new writers at W.
  •  Victorian crime for S and Victoriana for U. I would have liked to read more of both, but I ran out of time and letters.
  •  Crime fiction in translation at L and V.
  •  A Cornish book, set in very familiar countryside, at B.
  •  Agatha Christie re-reads at A and F. A for Agatha seemed to be the perfect place to start, and once I had re-read one book a number of others called me.
  •  Neglected woman authors, who were published in numbered green Penguins, at E, M, P and R. If I have learned one thing through the alphabet, it is always to look carefully at green Penguins as there are some real gems there.
  •  Male authors from the middle of the last century, who aren’t as lauded as some but really should be, at I, N and Q.
  •  A lovely range of contemporary crime fiction at C, D, J, O, T and Z.
  •  And that excellent, emergency short story at Y.

Mission accomplished, I think!

Here’s the A to Z in full.

A is for Agatha The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
B is for Bolitho Framed in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho
C is for Crombie Where Memories Lie by Deborah Crombie
D is for Darkside Darkside by Belinda Bauer
E is for Ethel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
F is for Five Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
G is for Glaspell A Jury of her Peers by Susan Glaspell (short story)
H is for Holding The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
I is for Innes Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes
J is for Jane The Burning by Jane Casey
K is for Kelly The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly
L is for Läckberg
The Stone-Cutter by Camilla Läckberg
M is for Mary Death and the Pleasant Voices by Mary Fitt
N is for Not Not to be Taken by Anthony Berkley
O is for Other The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah
P is for Potts The Man with the Cane by Jean Potts
Q is for Question A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake
R is for Roth Shadow of a Lady by Holly Roth
S is for Study A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan-Doyle
T is for Tyler The Herring in the Library (and others) by L C Tyler
U is for Unburied The Unburied by Charles Palliser
V is for Van der Vlugt Shadow Sister by Simone Van Der Vlugt
W is for Written Written in Blood: a Honno Anthology
X is for Expendable The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
Y is for You You are a Gongedip by Sophie Hannah (short story)
Z is for Zouradi The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

And that really is the end of the alphabet.

So where does my crime fiction reading go now? Well, I have The Quarry by Johan Theorin, A Herring on the Nile by LC Tyler, Now You See Me by S J Bolton, and two books by Erin Kelly in my library pile. My own green Penguins and my Agatha Christie collection are calling too, Plus those authors I discovered, and rediscovered, along the way and want to read again. And recommendations I picked up from others along the way ….

No end of possibilities …

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Y is for You Are a Gongedip !

I hadn’t thought that the letter Y would be so difficult.Maybe its proximity to X, the most difficult letter of them all, lulled me into a false sense of security.

I did have a book lined up: Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurardottir. I’d read some positive reports, and I saw some potential in the opening chapters, but when I find characters telling each other how dark, how horrific, how bloody a murder was early in a book it is inevitable that I will decide that I don’t want to know any more.

When I looked to my own bookshelves I could find just one novel that might fit: Desiring Cairo by Louisa Young. I liked the first few chapters, but it seemed to be a novel with a little crime rather than a piece of crime fiction. And I put it down one night and couldn’t find it the next morning. I took that as a sign that this wasn’t the book.

I checked through a few anthologies to see if I could find a good short story, but I found nothing. Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers all let me down!

And so it was time to go to the library. I could find nothing on the crime fiction shelves, not one Y author or one Y book. There was a crime novel with a title beginning with the word You on a paperback carousel, but the plot looked so ludicrous that I didn’t even consider it.

I found two titles by Margaret Yorke on the large print shelves. They looked readable but I wasn’t inspired, and so I moved on to look at volumes of short stories.

Three Best of British anthologies edited by Maxim Jakuowski, two CWA anthologies yielded nothing.

But then I spotted a copy ofThe Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets. I’ve read it, and I do have a copy of my own, but I have no idea where it is. And I found that Sophie Hannah had written my Y story.

I must admit that it hadn’t stood out when I read it alongside the others in the book, but when I read it again I realised that it was rather good.


What a thing to have shouted at you!

An insult from a secret language devised by childhood friends. A language that they continued to use at university. And even when they met up in later years.

It wasn’t something that William, expected to hear as he worked at home on a new edition of a dictionary of rhymes.

A young woman was shouting at him from the street. A young woman who worked for his publisher, in some very junior capacity. A young woman he’d had a brief relationship with, and then moved on without a second thought.

She had picked up the secret language on a night out with William and his friends, and she was going to use it.

Shouted insults were only the start – there was far more to her plan than that.

This was the story that proved that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Sophie Hannah took a simple idea, executed it nicely, with well drawn characters, with sharp dialogue, and with the same intelligence, the same contemporary touches that she brings to her novels.

And a wicked twist in the tale fitted absolutely perfectly.

I can say no more!


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

Next week the alphabet ends – Z is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: O is for Other

I bought a copy of The Other Half Lives a couple of years ago. I started reading, and then I stopped. Because even for Sophie Hannah, queen of the seemingly impossible scenario, this one just seemed a little too unlikely.

In a London hotel room Ruth and Aidan agree to share their deepest, darkest secrets.

“It doesn’t have to be everything. Just … as much as we can … “

She tells him that years ago she did something wrong to a woman and a man. She was punished excessively, and she has never recovered from it. She is too distressed to say any more.

He tells her that he killed a woman.

She is stunned.

He says that her name was Mary Trelease.

She is confounded. She has met Mary Trelease and she knows that she is not dead.

So why does Aidan insist that he has killed her?

Second time around I read this opening more carefully. I saw that both Ruth and Aidan were complex, damaged characters. That both had clearly left much unsaid. I was intrigued.

Both Ruth and Aidan approached the police. She went to Charlie Zailer and he went to Simon Waterhouse, and so Sophie Hannah’s recurring characters from the Culver Valley Police Force were drawn into the story.

Those recurring characters have grown on me, but the balance between them and the particular story never seems quite right. Once the main story gets going it’s not an issue at all, but this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed a rather long diversion away from the main plot early in a novel, that hasn’t added too much value.

But after that diversion the story was off and running, and I was very definitely hooked.

The continued existence of Mary Trelease was swiftly proved, but she was a very strange woman and both Charlie and Simon was both sure that there was something amiss. And so, although there was no case to investigate, investigate they did.

Their stories are mixed with Ruth’s first person account to fine effect.

Initially the story moves slowly, with the case focused on Ruth, Aidan and Mary. I couldn’t say that I like any of them, but I believed in them and I was intrigued. It was clear that all three had secrets and I wanted to know what those secrets were.

Eventually the story opened out and all of those secrets would be revealed.

A positively labyrinthine and perfectly paced plot twisted that way and that. Eventually it built to a very clever ending. An ending that explained everything, and it was psychologically complex and true.

I have deliberately said very little about the plot, because there is nothing I can say without giving too much away. But I think I should warn that it is very dark in places.

Sophie Hannah has pulled off her usual trick of making me believe the unbelievable because her characters are psychologically spot on. And because as the revelations came I could understand each one a little better.

Three distinctive, flawed, complex characters. One in particular will haunt me.

Fine writing and excellent plotting held everything together. The book was long, but there was always something to keep me hanging on, keep me turning the pages.

I spotted a few of the author’s trademarks. I spotted quite a few cliches of the genre. But it didn’t matter.

An unbelievable story held me, because it’s author made me want to believe.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so in two weeks time, after a break for Easter, P is for … ?

Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

Oh Sophie!

Writing about mysteries is always difficult. It is so important that facts are revealed, characters are uncovered, in the right order and at the right pace, and just one stray point could spoil the book for another reader. And that is particularly true for books like yours. They are so gripping as they twist and turn on quite extraordinary ways.

But I think it would be safe for me to explain the scenario, wouldn’t it?

In the early hours of the morning Connie is lying awake. She gets up, heads to her computer, pulls up an estate agent’s website and zooms in on a particular property. A property quite beyond the reach of Connie and her husband.

She studies the pictures carefully. She looks at the virtual tour. And she sees a woman’s body in a pool of blood in the lounge. Connie rushes to fetch her husband, but when he looks at the tour he sees the same lounge with no body, no sign of anything amiss.

He says that she must have imagined what she saw, but Connie is certain that she did nothing of the kind. She believes her eyes.

A very promising scenario,

And a classic Sophie Hannah heroine. A woman who has experienced something extraordinary, something seems quite impossible. A woman who is not believed, but will not give in.

I see a pattern but, to be fair, I must say that all of Sophie Hannah’s heroines are a diverse group of women and their circumstances and the situations they find themselves in are nicely varied.

Of course the detectives of the Culver Valley police force, Sophie Hannah’s serial characters, became involved. When I first started reading this series I wasn’t too taken with them, but they have grown on me. It may be a problem that I read the books out of order, but it look me a while to realise that they formed a series. Certainly the blurbs gave nothing away.

In the early part of the book I felt that a little too much time was spent on their ongoing storylines, but things soon settled down and setting their perceptions and discoveries against Connie’s worked very well.

The story twisted and turned in quite extraordinary ways. Some were “aha” twists, some were “ooh” twists, and some were “what on earth” twists. One – the one about the addresses – stretched credulity a little too far, but clever plotting, interesting characters and excellent writing kept me turning the pages. I was enthralled, and baffled. 

The final twist was very clever and the conclusion dramatic. It had been foreshadowed at the beginning of the book and yet it retained the element of surprise. Very, very clever.

I raced through Lasting Damage and I loved it, but it wasn’t quite perfect.

A little too much felt familiar, and I could draw rather too many comparisons with other books in this series.

Some familiarity is good of course, and Lasting Damage is a very, very good book. But I know that Sophie Hannah can write so well, and I am quite sure that she doesn’t need a safety net, and that if she could change just a little more she could advance from very, very good to excellent.

But, of course, she can write whatever she likes, and whatever she writes I will most definitely read.

A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

I have dark shadows under my eyes, and I blame Sophie Hannah. I’ve stayed up much later than I intended for a few nights now, reading her newest book.

It’s her fifth crime novel, and in some ways it follows the pattern of the previous four by posing a seemingly unsolvable puzzle, but it other ways it is a much more serious,  more thought-provoking, more mature work than the four that came before.

The trouble is though, because it’s a mystery I don’t want to say much more about the plot than is disclosed on the jacket. So what I’ll do instead is introduce you to the main players.

Helen Yardley was convicted and imprisoned for the murder of her two infant sons. She was later released on her appeal, her conviction found to be unsafe. Now she is a figurehead for women is similar circumstances and campaigns for others to be released.

Her husband, Paul Yardley, stood by her, but they lost their daughter. She was taken away by Social Services and new parents were found for her.

Grace and Sebastian Brownlee were thrilled to be able to adopt a little girl. They would never give her up and they certainly never wanted her to find out who her real mother was.

Helen’s release was the result of a campaign by journalist and documentary maker Laurie Nattrass. He’s making a film about Helen and two other women accused of infanticide.

Sarah Jaggard was tried for the murder of a friend’s baby. She was found not guilty, and her husband, Glen, stood by her. They don’t have things easy, but they are facing the future together.

But photographer Angus Hines didn’t stand by his wife. He has his own viewpoint, and he is determined that his voice will be heard.

Ray Hines, like Helen, was convicted of the murder of her own children, and her conviction was set aside too.

What links those three women? Doctor Judith Duffy was an expert witness at all three trials, but now she has been discredited and charged with misconduct. But is it that simple?

Maybe not. Laurie Nattrass has accepted a new job and Fliss Benson finds herself promoted and in charge of the documentary. It’s a job she has good reason to not want. for personal reasons, because Laurie thinks he can still pull the strings, and because Ray Hines is pursuing her. Why?

It’s an interesting cast, and characters are one of Sophie Hannah’s strengths. Every one vivid and utterly believable.

The mystery that links then all is the murder of Helen Yardley. And of course it brings in Sophie Hannah’s series characters, detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charley Zailer, and a new dimension as Detective Inspector Giles Proust who is in charge of the Yardley murder case, was junior officer when Helen Yardley was first arrested and believes completely in her innocence.

The story that is complex, but not difficult to follow, and utterly compelling. Some elements and attitudes are entirely expected, but many are not. So you are always unsettled and always thinking and wondering. There’s so much I’d like to say, so many interesting relationships, developments and ideas, but I can’t. It would spoil it.

And it’s a story that raise a lot more questions. That maybe justice can’t be fully served by deeming people guilty or not guilty. About the seeming need to always have somebody cast as a hero and somebody cast as a villain. About how sometimes things are broken and can’t be fixed, no matter how sorry anyone might be. And gripping though the story is there are moments, and many dialogues, with the power to make you stop and think about things that are really much more important.

But the mystery never loses its hold. There are elements that are a little difficult to believe, but they work because they are psychologically true. Loose ends too, a few things unexplained, but life is like that. The ending has those same strengths and weaknesses. It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s extremely well executed and it does work.

And, though I’m tired, I’m still thinking about this book. I suspect I will be for a good while.