Written by Sophie Hannah — Nobody does dark and twisted better than Sophie Hannah, but after an inroad into Agatha Christie territory with The Monogram Murders, she seems in no hurry to get back to her crime series featuring Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. In this contemporary standalone novel, Hannah has injected a lot of humour into her trademark ‘situation impossible’ psychological thriller.
Justine Merrison is moving to Devon with her opera-singer husband Alex and her teenage daughter Ellen. Having acquired a fairly substantial property called Speedwell House, she is all too happy to have some down time after the rough and tumble of a TV career which threatened to overwhelm her. However, as her husband correctly surmises, Justine is too much of a drama queen to bury herself in the wilds of Devon. She can’t go for 10 minutes without having a major, life-changing realisation, and soon her tranquil rural life is clouded by bizarre events. Is she overreacting and trying to see patterns where there are none? You may well spend most of the book trying to decide just how reliable a narrator Justine really is.
Young Ellen seems to be more and more withdrawn, but refuses to discuss her unhappiness with anybody. Typical teenager, or is there more to it? She is also writing a detailed account of the eccentric and murderous Ingrey family, who used to live in Speedwell House. Justine herself starts receiving threatening, anonymous phonecalls. Finally, when Ellen tells her that her only friend at school, George Donbavand, has been expelled because of a misunderstanding, Justine decides to intervene – only to be told that there never was a pupil of that name at the school.
Unsure who to believe or how all these incidents are related, worried that she or her daughter may be losing their grip on reality, Justine stubbornly pursues the multiple mysteries. Along the way she is helped by a strange dog breeder who foists an inquisitive Bedlington terrier by the name of Figgy Pudding on the family. Alternating with the storyline set in the present, we also find chapters written by Ellen about the Ingrey family. They bring a lighter, funnier tone to the story and capture the voice of teenage self-absorbtion and over-earnestness to perfection.
Just in case you are starting to think that Sophie Hannah has turned to cosy mystery writing, this is not the case. It is true that this is frothier and funnier than some of her previous books. The puppy that ultimately wins over all the hearts is a pretty standard cosy mystery device, but plays a more significant role in this case. If you don’t like gratuitous violence you’ll be relieved to find that there are no graphic scenes of horror.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of dark moments in the everyday Gothic vein that the author excels at. Those are the moments when we start to question if we ever really know a person, when we have the rug pulled out from under us, when we wonder who the monster really is. All of that is still present in this novel, and there is also an ending which dispels any illusions of cosiness.
This is a diverting and quick read. It just misses out on a five star rating because the plot does get a little far-fetched at times. The leisurely pace and alternating narrator device is also likely to have action thriller fans chomping at the bit. However, if you prefer a workout for your little grey cells, served with equal dollops of menace and humour, you will be thoroughly entertained.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars