All fiction is about creating worlds with words, but crime fiction is about competing realities and the conflicts and ironies (not to mention violence) created by them. Sophie Hannah's crime novels are about various voices, each creating a reality: one is always in the first person, the voice of a woman who struggles to reconcile her world with some kind of dissonance or create a strategic alternate reality. In the other half of the story, DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse struggle to bring the alternate realities of the first-person narrator and the crime into coherence with "official" reality, while also struggling to bring their own personal realities into some relation to each other. In her not-yet-published The Other Half Lives, even more than in her earlier novels, competing realities are conjured by talk, often in oblique conversations that reveal the distance between the various characters' points of view on what's real. Ruth and her boyfriend Aidan have concealed from each everything important about their lives. When he challenges her to reveal a secret (and not knowing that she has still concealed the most important fact about herself), he reciprocates by admitting that he once murdered a woman--but it's a woman that she happens to know is very much alive. We overhear their continuing lies to each other, to the police, and to everyone else they know. Even the action sequence in the violent conclusion moves forward mostly in alternating conversation and interior monologue. There are several suggestions through the novel of the analogies between fiction writing and the world-building that the characters are exercising in their talk and action, as well. The result is a sophisticated, spiraling narrative that investigates the motives (and the repercussions) of ordinary life, the extraordinary circumstances that interrupt our lives, and the language that we use to maintain reality and cope with exigencies. Along the way, Hannah also portrays a particular niche in the art world (some of her characters are artists, some are arts professionals or collectors)--in particular the hype that supports certain kinds of art and the consequences for an artist of turning his or her back on the overheated world of major collectors and art fairs. The artists are painters whose work is rather unfashionable, appreciated only by collectors and others who recognize their talent in forcefully depicting human narratives (suggesting the talent of the crime writer, in fact, in several ways). The one object that suggests the flashier part of the art market is in fact a vivid (but private) "installation work" that grows directly from the tortured mind of a central character in the drama (a complex "artwork" whose resonance might be envied by a lot of artists, in or out of the fashionable "scene"). Hannah keeps the story away from the celebrity-driven realm of art, mentioning the Saatchi Collection but not portraying it, for instance, so that her story doesn't get sidetracked into a potboiler thriller or a roman à clef sort of book--she wisely keeps her focus on the characters (both the ones specific to this story and the ones common to all her crime novels), whose voices are vivid and believable even when what they are saying is difficult for us (or the police) to believe. There are also some very funny sequences, as well as a character-based wit that has always been important in her fiction.
All in all, The Other Half Lives is a compelling novel that is sustained by clearly drawn characters and complex but controlled storytelling, rather than clichés of plot, genre, and action. Hannah never condescends to genre, though--all her novels are clearly crime fiction, though also very hard to categorize, having as they do elements of various forms within and beyond the genre, mixed together creatively. I don't have an image of the cover to post with this review--there's not one available yet. So here's a cover image of one of her poetry collections, which in fact has a very noir-sounding title. I'll add The Other Half Lives cover when the it shows up on-line and the book is closer to its release date.