Monday 17 August 2009

Hurting Distance

Sophie Hannah is one of the most interesting British novelists of psychological suspense to have emerged in recent years. Perhaps the most interesting. She admires (as I do) the work of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, and you can see their indirect influence in her novels – the delineation of character is sharp, and the plots are complex and compelling.

I enjoyed Little Face, her debut, but I found Hurting Distance, which sees the return of DS Charlie Zailer, to be even better. Unusually for a crime novel, the central crime is rape rather than murder, and I thought Hannah treated a very difficult subject very well.

The set-up is characteristically intriguing. Naomi has been conducting a passionate affair with a married man, but when he suddenly disappears, his wife denies that anything has happened to him. Naomi goes to the police, but only Charlie treats the investigation seriously. The truth emerges gradually, with a dazzling series of twists and turns. Christie could never have written such a book, but I feel she would have admired the author’s craftsmanship.

Hannah is clearly aware that her story appears to depend upon a string of coincidences and, cleverly, she tackles that issue head on in the narrative. I wasn’t quite convinced, though – the plot development that sees Charlie and her sister change holiday destination from Spain to a British location struck me as highly unlikely; so unlikely that it caused me to guess the outcome. But this is, I promise, a minor quibble, for Hurting Distance is, by and large, a quite superb piece of work. Charlie Zailer is sexy, intelligent, and vulnerable. She has quickly become one of my favourite detectives, and Hannah's characterisation generally is very good indeed. Strongly recommended.


seana graham said...

That's a nice rec, Martin. I'll have to see if we can get her over here yet.

Table Talk said...

I'm a complete Sophie Hannah junky, I'm afraid. And, like you, I thought 'Hurting Distance' was better than 'Little Face'. I also have to say though that, while I've very much enjoyed the two later books, I don't think they quite come up to the standard of this one. Not that that will stop me being first in the queue for number five.

Martin Edwards said...

I haven't read the later books, Table Talk, but have a copy of The Point of No Return waiting for me. A treat in store.

Paul Beech said...

Now there’s a name I haven’t come across before – Sophie Hannah. But I’m jolly glad to have come across her now, thanks to your blog, Martin.

I’ve just visited her website – it’s good stuff. A poet and children’s writer as well as a crime writer – yes, she’s one exciting talent, for sure. I see her Waterhouse and Zailer novels are being adapted for TV. And from the website extracts, I’m impressed. Hannah writes with originality, ingenuity and a poet’s precision, her characterisation and dialogue excellent. A certain pithy sharpness and wit there.

As for her poetry, I’m not surprised her fifth collection, ‘Pessimism for Beginners,’ was the Poetry Book Society’s 2007 Winter Choice and shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize in the same year. I like the bitter, elliptical logic in ‘From a Stranger’ and the humorous paranoia in the title piece. Just goes to show what can still be done with traditional verse forms.

It always fascinates me, the connection between poetry and crime writing, and in a video interview on her website it was interesting to hear Hannah comment as follows:

‘I think the genres have more in common than people might think, because with both poetry and crime fiction structure is really important. In a poem, every word has to be in exactly the right position in relation to every other word in order for it to work. And I think it’s exactly the same with a crime novel. You know, if you want to have a revelation at the end, you need to lay the groundwork for that revelation. So you need to have a bit of information in Chapter 3, and you might need another bit in Chapter 11, so that once there’s the big revelation at the end, readers can think back over the whole story and think “Oh yeah, there was this and there was that and there was that,” so that it all has a substantial foundation.’

Great to hear this emphasis on structure and craft. Of course the linkage goes a bit deeper than that. It has to do, I think, with a way of apprehending reality and processing experience. The poem, the story – both, surely, are a means of psychological or philosophical exploration; a means of capturing something of the meaning of life. And from the extracts I’ve read, I’d say this is true of Hannah’s work.

So, a great blog post, Martin. I shall be looking for Sophie Hannah on my next visit to the library.



Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Paul. There is indeed a link between poetry and crime fiction and I think it's no coincidence that so many poets have written crime.