Murder and mind games with rhyme and reason
There are no such things as guilt and innocence in Sophie Hannah’ s crime books, but there’s a rigorous approach that matches literature with poetry, writes DECLAN BURKE
‘I’ve always loved rhyming, metrical poetry and mystery stories,” says author Sophie Hannah. “Ever since I discovered Enid Blyton and read the Secret Seven books, I can remember thinking: this is what stories should do. They should have a mystery, and why would anyone want to write a story that didn’t have a mystery in it? I’ve never really changed my mind since.”
Hannah is a rare kind of crime author. The daughter of academic Norman Geras and the writer Adèle Geras, she was first published as a poet with the collection Early Bird Blues in 1993.
“I’ve always loved books, and we were a very booky family, but no, I don’t think it was always inevitable that I would be a writer,” she says. “I did get very keen on writing at a very young age, though, and throughout my whole childhood and teenage years, writing was pretty much my only hobby. I always wrote, both poems and stories.”
Those Enid Blyton-inspired stories led to her career as a crime novelist, which began in 2006 with the publication of Little Face, and her novels have since been adopted into ITV drama Case Sensitive. However, Hannah has continued to write poetry, and was shortlisted for the 2007 TS Eliot Award for her fifth collection, Pessimism for Beginners.
In a sense, she embodies the apparent contradiction of a poet who also writes bestselling psychological thrillers. Friendly and bubbly before we sit down in the crypt-like surroundings of the Merrion Hotel’s vaults to talk about her current novel, The Carrier, she is icily precise in her diction and choice of words once the interview begins. It’s a matter of respect for the tools of her trade.
“I read a lot of crime fiction and, while the language is fine and does the job of telling the story, a lot of crime fiction doesn’t have an obvious flair for language,” she says. “It’s perfunctory . . . a bit like reading an episode of Silent Witness adapted into a novel, rather than a proper novel. I’d rather read books that aren’t like that, but the thing is that I’m addicted to mystery. So if I read a literary novel by a brilliant writer I often get impatient because not enough interesting things are happening.
“My ideal is a book that is brilliantly written with a proper, literary use of language, but also with a really gripping plot. That’s why I really like Tana French, or Gone Girl [by Gillian Flynn] – properly good writers writing crime fiction that obeys all the rules of the genre, but being as original as possible within those rules.”
The Carrier is the eighth novel to feature Culver Valley police detective Simon Waterhouse and his team. It’s typical of her original take on the psychological thriller, opening up with a hook that appears utterly preposterous. Tim Breary has confessed to murdering his wife, Francine, but he’s adamant that he didn’t have a motive.
“I always like to start with a hook that’s more interesting than just, you know, here’s a dead body and who killed that dead body. To me that’s not interesting. Somebody killed that person, it’s not that mysterious. It’s bound to be somebody else in the book, and they probably did it because they didn’t like them very much,” she says. “Whereas, if you have a mystery that’s so unusual that readers think, Why on Earth would anyone do that?, that’s what I’m always aiming to create. It might sound preposterous to begin with, but of course it has to transpire that there is one story that will make this hook possible. And once the reader knows what’s going on, then it all makes perfect sense.”
Despite her perennial appearance on the bestseller list, Hannah is aware that her distinctive storytelling style doesn’t necessarily appeal to more conservative readers of the mystery novel.
“They’re very different,” she says of her books, “and that is why people seem to either love or hate them. I get a lot of people who, for example, enjoy a Linwood Barclay or a Lee Child, and then they try one of mine because it’s in the same section in the bookshop, and they think, Hang on a minute. Am I really expected to get involved in all this analytical psychology?
“I think for a lot of readers of conventional, commercial crime, my books seem unusual, but I see them as firmly within the genre. They are driven by a mystery. In that sense they’re quite traditional. Puzzle and solution, that’s the basic structure of each one. But at the same time I’m really interested in people, psychology and human behaviour, so that’s all in there as well.”
In The Carrier, courtesy of Tim Breary’s obsession with poets, we also get a critique of contemporary poetry.
“Since I was about five or six,” she says, “I’ve always loved metrical, rhyming poetry – I don’t much like free verse . . . All the poems in the book are what I call proper poems. Something is being communicated, and there’s a formal rhyming scheme, too. I’m a bit strict about that.
“What I always say is that the difference between crime and poetry, from the point of view of a reader, is that in crime fiction everybody is trying to do the right things – a great story, proper characters that we care about, a surprising plot. That’s what we’re all aiming for.
“With poetry, everyone’s probably brilliantly talented, but they’re all trying to do a silly thing: to banish from poetry rhyme and its music – all the things that make it good.”
Her love of formal poetry is integrated into The Carrier via a kind of narrative rhyming scheme. As is the case in all of Hannah’s novels, the story builds tension by switching between a number of narrative voices: that of the heroine, in this case Gaby Struthers, is told in the first-person, while those of the various police detectives are recounted in the third person.
“The interweaving of alternate chapters, from the police point of view and the heroine’s point of view, is similar to poetry because you’re balancing the narrative out,” she says. “Just as if the first verse of a poem had an ABAB rhyming scheme, then you’d expect the second verse to have an ABAB scheme. It’s like setting up a pattern and then following it, and having two elements which are working together but also straining away from each other makes it quite taut. So there are similar considerations at play as would be if I was writing a poem.”
If Hannah is proudly old-fashioned in her love of poetry, she’s similarly happy to name-check Agatha Christie as a strong influence on her crime writing. The Carrier, which opens with a murderer declaring his guilt, has strong echoes of the type of mystery beloved of Christie and her fellow authors of the golden age of pre-second World War crime writing.
Thinking inside the box
“I do like that kind of locked-room mystery,” she says. “One reason is that you’re putting a boundary or a constraint in place, which it makes it all more intriguing. The tighter you box yourself into a corner [as a writer], the more impressive it is if you can produce a solution to it all.
“But it really isn’t so much about who did it as why. The person who killed Francine – that could have been anyone, but what matters is why the person killed her. And ultimately, the question becomes who’s responsible for her death. What I was aiming for was for the reader to quickly realise who did it, but also realise that that is a different question from who is guilty of the murder.
“The person who actually committed the murder, given the context in which it was committed, maybe isn’t the most guilty person involved.”
Hannah’s characters, whether cop or villain, are invariably morally compromised. “Seriously, are there really any ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ in real life, or is everyone just a bit flawed and dodgy, and struggling on as best they can? That’s the same question that comes up in all my books. I don’t believe in goodies and baddies.
“The murderers in my books are not the baddies, just the people who, among the general crowd of screwed-up people, are the ones who were pushed furthest.
“I think the conventional crime novel is the battle between good and evil in the form of detective and murderer, or protagonist and murderer,” she says. “In my books, the battle between good and evil is there, but it’s within every person. And to win that battle isn’t so much down to being good all the time, it’s to realise there’s no such thing as guilt or innocence. That we’re all implicated.”
Sophie Hannah’s The Carrier is published by Hodder & Stoughton