The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

Well, Sophie Hannah has done it again. Did anyone ever have such a fiendishly fertile and convoluted imagination? This is her ninth crime novel, and she shows no sign of running out of ideas or slackening the extraordinary tension that her complex and multi-layered plots generate.

Of course, these are psychological thrillers, and one thing that Hannah really excels at is creating characters – generally women – with very complicated psychology. Clever, damaged, confused and not particularly likeable, they manage to alienate pretty well everyone around them while somehow not losing the sympathy of the reader. That is some achievement for a writer, to start with. These women are not exactly unreliable narrators, though we tend not to be privy to everything that’s going on in their minds, but generally they tell us the truth, or at least part of it, though they withhold it from others.

All that is certainly true of Nicky in The Telling Error.  Nicky has a loving husband, Adam, and two young children, and overall a happy home life. But Nicky is, and always has been, a pathological liar. Severely punished for her lies throughout her childhood by her bullying and abusive father, she has never completely grown out of the habit and indeed needs it to feel fully alive. So, though she loves Adam and has managed to stay faithful to him for many years, she has, before the novel begins, entered into a highly sexualised online relationship with a man she knows only as King Edward VII. She knows it’s wrong, she feels desperately guilty, but she is hooked. And, after a long period of anonymity, King Edward reveals that he is none other than Damon Blundy, a famously outspoken and scorchingly abusive journalist who has created many enemies through his newspaper column. Increasingly besotted, Nicky has managed to persuade Adam to move out of London to the town where Blundy himself lives, in the hope that perhaps they may finally meet. But then Blundy is found dead, murdered in a most bizarre and inexplicable way, and Nicky soon becomes a suspect.

In fact, in revealing this much, I have shot forward a bit into this extraordinarily multi-faceted novel, in which tiny bits of the story are almost grudgingly allowed to show themselves little by little. Typically, Nicky will open up a little bit more and then cut off just as we think we are getting somewhere with her history of events. As she does so, we learn more and more about her own deeply troubled and unhappy childhood, and her relationship with her younger brother and his rather scary wife. So yes, we have Nicky’s story told by Nicky, and we also have Damon’s newspaper columns, and of course we have the police procedural bit which, as always, is dominated by the brilliant, though somewhat strange, Simon Waterhouse and his wife Charlie. I’m rather glad to say that we are spared the accounts of the ups and downs of their marriage and Charlie’s anxieties about it, which I had had enough of by the previous novel. But we do get the benefit of Simon’s gradual and inexorable progress towards the solution, aided quite considerably here by Charlie. And then there are the other detectives, who, if you’ve read any of the earlier novels, will be old acquaintances if not exactly friends.

You may think from what I’ve said that you need to have read the earlier novels to get the full benefit of this one, but that is far from true. OK, there may be a touch of extra pleasure from meeting characters you already know, but I can tell you that this could be anyone’s introduction to Hannah without any loss of delight or effectiveness. Every writer, however great, has highs and relative lows, and I have found this to be true of Hannah too – I absolutely loved Kind of Cruel (2012) but was less blown away by The Carrier (2013). But as I say, it’s all relative, and I’d rather read a slightly less than top-class Hannah than almost any other crime writer I can think of. So, I need hardly say that this is very highly recommended.

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Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014), 356 pages.

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