Reviewed by Harriet
Nobody who’s a fan of Sophie Hannah’s crime fiction will be surprised to learn that The Narrow Bed features an inexplicable set of crimes, enough twists to make you dizzy, and a female central character who is pretty psychologically weird. That could easily describe any one of Hannah’s previous novels, but that’s OK – more than OK, in fact, as it’s such a pleasure to see how she uses the formula this time round.
In this case, the crimes are the murders of pairs of best friends, causing the killer to have been nicknamed ‘Billy Dead Mates’. Two such murders have been committed, which are obviously linked not only by the method of killing but also, more mystifyingly, by the fact that each victim has been given a small handmade white book containing just one line of text, a quotation from a female American poet whose name begins with E. However, a celebrated stand-up comedian, Kim Tribbeck, also proves to have received a white book, though she has no best friend (no friends at all, in fact) and so far has not been killed. But when her dying grandmother – with whom she has had a decidedly toxic relationship – proves to have been murdered and is found to have a white book in the bed with her, Kim gets understandably nervous.
Not only is the case a complex one, but this complexity is also echoed in the structure of the novel. The narrative swings between third-person accounts of the police investigation which, like most of Hannah’s novels, features brilliant but strange DCI Simon Waterhouse and his wife Charlie Zailer, extracts from a autobiographical text by Kim Tribbeck, emails from Kim’s publishers, and blog posts by a terrifyingly radical feminist journalist Sondra Halliday, who claims the murders are rooted in misogyny despite the fact that one of the victims was a gay man. There are also some delightfully peculiar new-age stories, taken from the blog of an alternative healer whose role is marginal but proves to be important.
It has to be said that there are not many truly likeable people here. It’s always a pleasure to re-meet Charlie, with her refreshing clear-sighted pragmatism, and Simon seems to have mellowed somewhat without losing his uncanny abiity to get to the heart of what proves to be a pretty ludicrous motive. Sondra Halliday is an absolute monster, though an unfortunately only too believeable one. But Kim is clearly at the centre here and is a fascinatingly conceived character. She’s cynical, bitter and angry, hates her grandmother and her brother in more or less equal measure, and dislikes her estranged husband and her ex-lover fairly equally too. She’s certainly not out to make things easy for the police, but her grandmother’s murder and her own receipt of one of Billy’s books are scary enough to make her agree to a tour with Charlie round her recent tour venues, in an attempt to pin down the place where she was given the book. As the two women start to forge a friendship, we begin to understand her back-story, and to see the reasons why she has become such an unsentimental cynic, and she becomes increasingly likeable as the novel proceeds.
As this novel is a continuation of what’s known as the Culver Valley series, we also get some satisfying forays into the lives and doings of Simon’s police colleagues. I was particularly taken with DC Sellars, who, despite being an overweight serial adulterer, with little apparent understanding of women, handles his interviews with Kim with surprising tact and finesse, and seems to be open to seeing things from a new perspective. But the novel also contains a mystery which is as perplexing as the one in the main plot – Charlie’s sister Liv and her lover DC Gibbs have announced that they are ending their long-term affair and trying to make a go of their respective marriages. Why, then, has Charlie spotted them having lunch in Cambridge with a couple she doesn’t recognise, with whom they are obviously deeply engaged in plotting something? Charlie and Kim take this one on, with some unexpected results, which no doubt will be pursued in a subsequent novel.
Readers of Hannah’s earlier novels will not be surprised to hear that the final revelations – the identity of the murderer and the motive – are bizarre, to say the least. But never mind that, which is really all part of the fun. And fun it was – this is a series I’m always looking forward to and this one certainly did not disappoint.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Sophie Hannah, The Narrow Bed (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016). 978-1444776089, 416 pp., hardback.
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