Monday 8 December 2008

Little Face

I first met Sophie Hannah at a writing workshop event held at the Brindley Arts Centre in Runcorn, a few years back. I knew two of the other writers involved in the event, June Francis and Margaret Murphy, but Sophie’s name was new to me. Our first encounter was when we were asked to identify which crime writers, living and dead, we most admired. By a weird coincidence, Sophie and I came up with exactly the same names.

I learned that Sophie is a poet who had just turned to writing crime fiction. Before the day was out, I had acquired from her a signed copy of her debut novel, Little Face, but I didn’t get the chance to do more than skim through it too quickly to do it real justice. I’d meant to review it for the Tangled Web site, but someone else beat me to it. Before the opportunity to read the book at my leisure came my way, Sophie had become quite a star. Little Face turned into an international best-seller, and has so far had two successors.

I had the chance, long overdue, really to luxuriate in the story on the flight home from Baltimore recently. It’s a book that opens brilliantly – a young woman called Alice Fancourt returns home not long after giving birth, only to announce that the baby her husband believes to be his is, in fact, not their child at all. It soon becomes apparent that Alice’s apparently idyllic lifestyle is deeply troubled. Her husband displays a sadistic streak and her mother-in-law is too possessive for comfort. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, the police investigate the mystery of the Fancourt household, and we learn that David Fancourt’s first wife was murdered. Could history be about to repeat itself?

I found the story, especially the first half, not just engrossing but conspicuously well-written. The relationship between the two principal detectives is also intriguingly portrayed. Sophie isn’t by any means the first poet to have turned to crime fiction with great success – one thinks of John Harvey, Cecil Day Lewis, and Roy Fuller among many others – but she has a truly distinctive talent. Her fascination with paradox is part of the secret of her unorthodox plotting and I hope to catch up with her more recent books in the very near future.

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