Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Carrier, by Sophie Hannah

There are a number of reviews of Sophie Hannah's newest "Zailer and Waterhouse" book already, so I'm not going to summarize the plot. It's a puzzle, of sorts, with a husband having confessed to smothering his stroke-stricken wife but with no motive that he will admit to. The plot is less the point of the story, though, than the characters, who are one and all very odd.

What got me into the novel (as with all the books in the series) was the comic interior monologues of the various voices through which the story is told. DS Charlie Zailer is a quick-witted and sarcastic observer of everything going on and everyone involved, and her now-husband DI Simon Waterhouse is comic in a completely different way: laconic, brilliant, and emotionally damaged in a way that only becomes clear well into the series, Simon is a center of gravity around which everyone in the Spilling police station orbits.

And in The Carrier there's an additional, compelling voice, with whom the novel begins: Gaby Struthers, a brilliant inventor and businesswoman (according to her and her friends), though what we actually hear from her is her sarcastic wit and sharp tongue. She is ann alternate Charlie, and the novel is brighter for their being two of them. Gaby's target at first is a slow-witted and emotional young woman (whose role in the plot I won't reveal) and the interplay between these two forms a frame for the rest of the book.

So far so good, and those voices were enough to twine me into the story. But the rest of the characters are pretty tedious. The confessed murderer (or not-murderer, since Simon can't believe his professed lack of motivation) is as twisted and unavailable emotionally as Simon (though he isn't "on stage" very much, he's the alternate Simon in the same way Gaby is the alternate Charlie). And the friends in whose house the murder took place are characterized mainly by their prevarication and lack of cooperation with the police. Clearly there is some secret behind the whole twisted situation.

But some elements of the story that would seem to have interesting possibilities are simply passed over, such as the inventions that Gaby has made in the past and is currently working on. The covers of Hannah's books, as presented by Hodder, her publisher) have always been icons of understatement but even more effective for their subtlety. The Carrier's cover suggests, even, something related to Gaby's career, but the connection isn't followed up, and in fact this image has less to do with the story than has been the case with previous books. Another loose thread is the title, which has an ominous quality until the reader discovers its actual connection with the story.

I hear that Hannah has been tasked with continuing Agatha Christie's oeuvre, and what she does with that project will surely be interesting. A "Christie" would surely be more compact and more plot driven than the Zailer-Waterhouse books. But I hope that she does carry over the dry wit and pointed comedy of her own writing: I wouldn't recognize Hannah's voice otherwise, and her voice (or that of her striking central characters) is one of the liveliest in current crime fiction.

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