I’ve just finished all of the published Sophie Hannah crime novels, and wondering when I last discovered such an original writer in the genre – certainly, not since I picked up my first Hiaasen novel as a young man. The quote above is the opening line of Hannah’s best book, Lasting Damage. And she goes on to say this: ‘when silence and fear combine, they form a compound a thousand times more horrifying than the sum of its parts.’
On the surface, Hannah’s novels are not original. Ever since Orwell wrote ‘The Decline of the English Murder’ crime writers have been trying to recreate the conditions of the great Englishman’s ideal reading experience: ‘Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.’
But what kind of murder? Judging from what’s popular, in publishing and TV, you want to read about a sophisticated slaying in some bucolic English town that, despite its rural bourgeois exterior, has a higher rate of violent crime than the most deprived council estates of the inner cities. You want to read about a series of such murders, solved by the same reliable team of local detectives, whose latent sexual frisson keeps the story ticking over in the long difficult terrain writers know as the middle part of the narrative. You want an apparently inexplicable crime. You want the sweet indulgence of resolution.
On all these points, Hannah delivers. A roster of strange deaths haunt the unlikely locales of the Culver Valley. All the murders are investigated by a small rotation of bickering, dysfunctional cops, who must puzzle through a string of esoteric ciphers and MacGuffins to reach a solution – said solution generally manifesting itself in the bad guy locked up or dead. The novels are narrated almost to formula with straight procedural narration spliced with random epistolary discourse and the confused thoughts of Hannah’s hapless heroines.
So what makes Hannah’s novels different? Part of it is the obvious draw for readers and writers of crime fiction. The villains. There are no everyday killers in Hannah’s Silsford and Spilling, no convicts who murder from cruelty, impulse and stupidity and who make up the majority of lifers behind bars in the real world. (There are, in other words, no Patrick Oxtobys.) Hannah’s bad guys are intelligent and deliberate people, who plan their crimes with care and arrive at the ultimate act of evil through motives dark and strange. And despite the bizarre nature of their plots, the terror they create feels real. Hannah has found the place where silence and fear combine, and built a house there.
I don’t want to make these antagonists sound like Orwell’s caricature of the upper-class murder mystery villain, who is generally ‘a little man of the professional class — a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs… He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.’ What lifts her monsters above the cliché is the effort Hannah puts into their realisation, and into their motives. Motive, disparaged by David Simon’s homicide detectives (‘Fuck the why’) enjoys a renaissance in her fiction. Hannah takes the common and random desires and aspirations that most of us have and runs with them into the darkness. Her killers are people who become fixated on an idea, a concept – the sense of place, a romantic dream, a lost youth, the idea of family, the idea of justice, the idea of freedom. Their fixations are so strong that dreams turn into nightmares. Anything can trigger it. A fragment of poetry, a glimpse of something strange. A family called the Gilpatricks.
Up against them is Culver Valley’s top cop, Simon Waterhouse. Although he’d never kill, he’s as single minded in his way as the men and women he pursues, full of empathy but without pity and convinced he’s always right. We’ve seen maverick cops in fiction before, and such men often try to distract themselves from their own intensity in a bottle of Jack Daniels’s, or the arms of warm loose women. Hannah’s twist is in giving us a detective hero who keeps red wine in the fridge, and cultivates an assiduous avoidance to intimacy. During the course of the books, Simon marries his boss Charlie Zailer, an ex academic and brilliant detective, tall, smart, witty and beautiful, and with the misfortune to fall in love with a man suffering from a terminal sexual reticence. When Hannah tells us that DC Waterhouse travelled home from university every weekend to attend church with his mother, we know we are not reading about Jimmy McNulty. Yet Simon is just as fascinating in his way – as locked in his own tragic disorder as the monsters are in theirs.
If Hannah has a cardinal virtue, it’s doubt. Doubt is hard to live with, but it saves us from our demons, helps us see what is before our eyes, and stops us from running off with the Scientologists or the English Defence League. A distinguishing feature of evil is in its hostility to doubt. Good people doubt: as Paul Auster said, the good even and especially doubt their own goodness. Despite everything, Simon knows this. He quotes from his favourite novel, Moby Dick:
Rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapour… And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.