Sunday, November 02, 2008
Hurting Distance, by Sophie Hannah
Hurting Distance, Sophie Hannah's second novel featuring Detective Sergeant Charlotte "Charlie" Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, is in some ways a more conventional crime novel than the first and third entries in the series, but no less satisfying for that. Hurting Distance is just as complex as the other two, but the police have a bigger role (and Charlie has a much bigger role). Hannah alternates a first-person narrative from a victim or witness's point of view with a third-person narrative focusing on the detectives, and her first-person narrators are spectacularly unreliable (the unreliable narrator being a literary device more common in so-called "literary" fiction than in crime fiction, though there are numerous examples from Christies Roger Ackroyd forward). The whole structure of her first novel, Little Face, is built on the unreliable narrator, and the newest novel, The Point of Rescue, uses an unreliable diary narrative in a very clever way. The first-person narrative of Hurting Distance is certainly unreliable from the detective's point of view, she's lying constantly to them--but her narrative is addressed not to the reader or to the police but to her lover, who has disappeared. She tries to convince the Spilling CID to investigate, but her only evidence is that he's failed to show up for their regular Thursday tryst and when she went to his house, whatever she saw there gave her a panic attack. Faced with police who are barely going through the motions of an investigation, she comes up with another reason to look for him, based on an event buried in her past. In the process, she kicks off a series of events that leads into horror scenarios of dominance, rape, and multiple victims. Hannah is too good a writer, though, for these sensational and salacious elements of the story to descend into cliche. The humor (especially in the interaction among the detectives, several of whom are more fully characterized here than in the first novel) is more pronounced here than in Little Face, especially in the first half of the novel, and the sense of threat is also heightened. In fact, there's the genuine spark of a lively thriller in Hurting Distance, more so than in either of the other 2 Zailer/Waterhouse books so far. The more direct story line and livelier plot, though, don't take away from the high standard of writing that characterizes all of Hannah's work. The emotional complexity leads to twists in the story that resonate in power relationships that we will all recognize from our own lives, and though a reader may anticipate a few things before the police do, and there are interconnections among characters that tiptoe right up to the edge of credulity-straining coincedence, but there are still surprises in store right up to the end--and the realism of the characters encompasses and explains the coincidences. The emotional truths that Hannah leads her characters through also have devastating consequences for a number of characters, both recurring ones and those particular to this book. Taken together, all these factors create a propulsive forward motion and a memorable crime novel. Now I have to go back to The Point of Rescue and see how threads begun in Hurting Distance play out there, elements of the newer novel that I may not have "caught" because I didn't have access to the excellent second novel in the series before reading the also excellent but quite different third one (reviewed here some time ago).