Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sophie Hannah writes a family thriller

Sophie Hannah is a new name to me, but the praise for her two earlier novels is considerable. I decided to start with the latest novel. If I like it, I can always go back to the earlier ones.

The Wrong Mother

Sophie Hannah’s The Wrong Mother (415 pages, Penguin, $15) centers on family homicide. When mother and daughter, Geraldine and Lucy Bretherick, are found murdered—or was it suicide and murder?—seasoned detective Simon Waterhouse and his partner Sam Kombothekra disagree about motive and the definition of what happened. Sam is happy to settle for suicide/murder because there was an incriminating diary—on Geraldine’s laptop—which complains about maternal responsibilities, and there was also a vaguely final-sounding suicide note as well. But Simon isn’t so sure. Neither the diary nor the suicide note is persuasive, and Simon is ready to point the finger at the aloof and rather condescending husband and father, Mark Bretherick.

When Sally Thorning—herself a stressed out mom with a distracted hubby (Nick) and two darling and feisty children—sees the television account of the murders, she does a double-take. It seems that sometime earlier, she had a week away from her family, and during that week she had an affair with a Mark Bretherick, who described his wife Geraldine and his daughter Lucy. Imagine her surprise, however, when the Mark she knows and the one on the television are not the same man at all.

As Sally tries to figure out her puzzle—and she would like to inform the police without revealing the incriminating details of her marital infidelity—she finds odd and inexplicable things happening to her: someone tries to push her in front of a bus; she feels that she is being followed; and all her friends seem to be acting strangely.

As Simon and Sam pursue their various leads, Simon turns to two people for help. Instead of asking the local professional authority about family annihilation, he turns to a Cambridge professor who has also written on the topic. This professor, Jonathan Hey, is a much more articulate and perceptive interlocutor, and he helps Simon get a handle on the crime. For one thing, he tells Simon, woman rarely commit crimes of this kind. Husbands, out of revenge or anger, sometimes kill a wife and children, but mothers, except in exceptional culturally-determined cases, rarely do.

The other person Simon talks to is his former partner, Sergeant Charlie Zailer, a woman with whom Simon has a complicated relationship. I’m sure the earlier novels in this series will explain both why Charlie and Simon no longer work together and what the nature of the frisson between them really is. For now, however, Charlie helps Simon with some details of the case.

Before the detectives get too close to solving the case, two more bodies are discovered buried in Mark Bretherick’s garden. This begins to suggest something more than an isolated crime, and the entire case becomes bigger and more complicated than anyone had imagined it would.

Sally Thorning is abducted—her fears were more than justified—and her jailer is the man with whom she had the affair. Now she knows he is not Mark Bretherick, but she is not sure who he is. When she discovers that he is inseminating her with his semen when she is unconscious, she is desperate to escape from him, but he insists that he wants a happy family life with her, even as he waves a gun in her face to keep her from leaving him.

It takes the police a very long time even to figure out that Sally is missing—her abductor used her phone to text her husband with the news that she was sent abroad on a business trip—but as they do find her, other details of the case fall into place.

Still, the conclusion is surprising, and Sophie Hannah deserves praise for the complications to her plot and the way in which the crime unravels. She is a masterful story-teller, and I think I will look for her earlier two novels. I will also watch for any new ones that come along.

Sophie Hannah

Available at Powell's, Amazon, and Vroman's.

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