Return of the Why

sophiehannahThe best work of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie argues that to track a murderer, the motive must first be established; in Baltimore, if not on the Orient Express, a known motive can be interesting, even helpful, yet it is often beside the point…

It’s a truth that goes against the accepted grain and court juries always have a hard time when a detective takes the stand and declares he has no idea why Tater shot Pee Wee in the back five times, and frankly, he could care less. Pee Wee isn’t around to discuss it, and our man Tater doesn’t want to say. But hey, here’s the gun and the bullets and the ballistics report and two reluctant witnesses who saw Tater pull the trigger and then picked the ignorant, murdering bastard from a photo array. So what the hell else you want me to do, interview the goddamn butler?

Crime fiction comes in two familiar types. There’s the street-level hardcore stuff with a great deal of profanity, huge desperate cities, shots of Wild Turkey and bodies hitting pavements. As the extract from David Simon’s Homicide above illustrates, it’s an American rhythm and an American vernacular, the language of Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. The second kind of crime fiction is more of a British thing. The setting will be a village in springtime, the bodycount reduced, the investigator will be a cerebral, sophisticated man probably not even connected to the police. The style is different. No one is ‘whacked’ in a Dorothy Sayers novel: people are inhumed.

There is an endless audience for this kind of murder. There is even a crime subgenre, ‘cosy crime’, defined by Waterstone’s as  ‘exactly as it sounds, cosy, relatively gentle and always satisfying.’ No other genre puts as much emphasis on the experience of the reader. George Orwell described the ideal condition: ‘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.’ Are you sleeping comfortably? Let us peruse the shattering of other lives.

Sophie Hannah is an accomplished writer of this second, Dorothy Sayers kind of fiction. It’s no surprise that she was commissioned by Christie’s estate to reimagine Poirot. For example, no one in a Sophie Hannah book is murdered for something so vulgar as money. Hannah’s victims die for other people’s dreams, lifelong neuroses, regrets and lost contents. You may guess the killer before Hannah reveals their identity, but you’re no less hooked, and you read on for the why. The story-concept of motivation has a long tradition in narrative: it has starred in Greek tragedies, and featured in Edwardian comedy, but Hannah takes the why to places it has never been before.

In another sense, she is a modern writer, almost modernist. Just as her best book, Lasting Damage, was a macabre satire on the British obsession with property and home ownership, in The Telling Error Hannah takes on the age of digital celebrity. The victim in this new book is Damon Blundy, a provocative pundit who is found strangled in his house, a knife taped to his face, and a message painted on the wall: HE IS NO LESS DEAD. Blundy has made his career offending just about everyone and his presence dominates the novel. We get transcripts of Blundy’s articles, even highlights from his Twitter timeline. Yet his true self remains a mystery. Like the Gilpatricks in Lasting Damage, he is there and yet not there.

Hannah specialises in confused, unreliable heroines and her protagonist Nicki Clements tops the lot. Nicki is a married woman who has had an affair with a mysterious stranger called ‘King Edward’ who claimed to have been Blundy himself. The affair has been almost entirely conducted online through a dating site, apart from one encounter in a hotel where ‘King Edward’ insisted that Nicki remained blindfolded throughout. Believing that ‘King Edward’ is Blundy, Nicki becomes a fan of the real Blundy’s columns, defending him below the line. She then comes to believe that ‘King Edward’ is not Blundy at all, but an imposter, and dumps him. She then starts another online affair with a man named ‘Gavin’ who may or may not be ‘King Edward’, either of whom may or may not be Damon Blundy. Confused?

You will be. The Telling Error is a wilderness of mirrors. It is about the construction of identity, something we all do in real life, that becomes easier online. People say things on the internet, that they would never think of saying in life to a physical person. In her afterword, Hannah says that ‘this book was heavily inspired by Twitter, the online home of much kindness, much cruelty, and endless pockets of hitherto unimagined absurdity.’ It’s a catalyst of creativity, and a dark liberation; a playground of individuality yet susceptible to mob rule.

Ideal territory for the crime writer. The Telling Error is compulsive stuff with unexpected twists and bodyswerves; it’s better than Hannah’s prentice works of the late 2000s if not quite up there with her classic run of A Room Swept White, Lasting Damage and Kind of Cruel. For Hannah’s longterm fans, as well as new readers, the book will give you a sense of pleasant familiarity that never quite descends into cosiness.


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