Friday, 25 March 2011

Lasting Damage ~ Sophie Hannah

I have been a fan of Sophie Hannah ever since I picked up her first crime novel, Little Face, and made the acquaintance of Sergeant Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse. As I suspect is true for many crime addicts, I am intrigued and gripped as much by the developing story within the police team as I am by the individual cases that are the subject of each of the books and I am definitely gripped by the cases. Sophie Hannah certainly knows how to write a thriller that keeps the reader on tenterhooks to the very last page. Lasting Damage is no exception.

Connie Bowskill is worried and, as we very soon discover, she's been worried for sometime. That worry forces her out of bed in the early hours of the morning to surf the net for details of a house she's seen that is up for sale. Bringing up the estate agent's website she finds that there is a virtual tour available and so she clicks on the button in the hope that she will find evidence that will settle those worries one way or another. Well, she finds evidence all right, but it isn't what she was expecting, because what she sees is a woman lying face down in a pool of blood. However, when she brings her husband downstairs and gets him to search the site, the woman has gone. What is more there is no sign of the blood either. The carpet is perfectly clean, the room perfectly normal.

And so the process of investigation begins and as usual it isn't until the very last pages of the novel that it becomes clear which of the many twists and turns in the plot will finally reveal the truth. Inevitably, it will take a mind that can see past the obvious and join dots that are so far apart as almost to belong to different puzzles to solve the mystery. Which is another way of saying that it will take Simon Waterhouse. And this is a problem because as the story begins he and Charlie are hundreds of miles away on their honeymoon. But then you surely didn't ever expect that to be the proverbial bed of roses, did you?

This is a very good book. They are all very good books. However, I am beginning to have a 'but'. While each of Hannah's books works extremely well as a single novel they all follow exactly the same pattern, not only in respect of the way in which they are structured but also in terms of the type of crime and the nature of the victim. Now, I am a great believer in pattern. To quote Kenneth Pike, man is a pattern-making, pattern-seeking animal. But, having shown that we know how the pattern works the trick to keeping an audience's attention is to break it without having the structure fall down around our heads, especially when the chosen pattern is as obviously signalled to the reader as it is in these books. Hannah is a good enough writer to do that and I am beginning to wish that she would find a way of making her work fresh. For me, she is starting to sound the same note rather too often.



  1. I appreciate your point. As much as I enjoyed the journey of reading the book, I suppose it was the expected journey.

  2. I haven't read any Sophie Hannah, I'll certainly pick one up if I see one at the library.

  3. Hello Annie,

    I have picked up Sophie Hannah books so many times, but never actually bought and read one and I don't know why.

    This book sounds fantastic, so I really will make the effort to add her to my TBR pile, but only so long as I can sneak them past my 'bookhound' husband, who has imposed a ban on any more fiction books, until the pile is at a manageable level LOL!!!

    I take your point about part of the interest in crime writing being about the character development of the detective teams, but I find that sometimes this aspect of the writing can rather overpower the book and detract from the storyline a little too much.

    Do you think that Sophie Hannah strikes the right balance?


  4. This book sounds really great, and as someone who has never read Hannah before, I don't have to worry about her story structures seeming too familiar. Perhaps she is best sampled now and then rather than read straight through?

  5. I've never read Hannah although I do keep meaning to! I wonder whether the formula is a particular lure for crime fiction writers. I've recently discovered Ross Macdonald and I loved his work. I read The Galton Case and thought wow! So then read The Wycherley Woman - and was surprised that is covered such similar territory all over again. I looked him up online to find out more about him and apparently this was a feature of his work. He was writing the same sort of story repetitively, but they were all variations on a theme, as if he were trying to find the perfect arrangement. It's an interesting way to think about that repetition, but I wonder whether the samey-ness will just pale after I've read a couple more.

  6. CL, I didn't do myself any favours by re-reading the earlier books before this came out, nevertheless, I think she needs to try and break the mould before it starts to dictate the books.

    Joanne, do try and start at the beginning with 'Little Face', other wise you might find yourself lost.

    Yvonne, I think if anything Hannah tends to be a bit too sketchy where the police are concerned. You're left to draw a lot of conclusions. But do try and sneak the first one past the bookhound, even if only as a library book. I'd love to know what you think.

    Dorothy, I did make the mistake of re-reading the earlier books just before this one came out, but I do still think that she is in danger of limiting herself in a way that might damage her writing if she isn't careful. Too much reliance on pattern can sometimes lead to lazy thinking, I find.

    Litlove, I don't know Macdonald, so I will have to investigate. The problem with Hannah is not so much that she is covering the same material as that she always looks at the same sort of victim and always uses the same surface structure as a way of organising her material. From what you say about Macdonald he sounds as if he might be more sophisticated in his repetition. But thanks for the tip. I'll see what I can find.

  7. I've never read any Sophie Hannah books, but this one has popped up on my radar a few times now. I think it's its way of telling me I need to read it! :)

  8. Nikki-Ann, I would certainly recommend Hannah, but I do think you need to read them in order. See if you can get a copy of 'Little Face'.

  9. I'm not at all a crime reader, but I've heard Hannah is very good if you like the genre. It's too bad her books are starting to follow a pattern; I often feel that happens with series or pseudo-series, which I think is one reason I tend to be happiest with trilogies, at most!

  10. Erin, Hannah wrote other novels before turning to crime, you might like to try some of those.

  11. Hi Annie

    Just to clarify: when you talk about the pattern of Sophie Hannah's books becoming too samey, do you mean: frail woman protagonist who might or might not be going mad, impossible-seeming scenario that turns out to be possible, Simon Waterhouse solving the crime using his brilliant mind - is that what you're finding too samey from book to book? Would you like to see Hannah tackle a more 'ordinary' mystery, in a less flashy but perhaps deeper and more realistic way?

  12. To Whom It May Concern, that is one of the patterns for sure, but there is also the structural pattern of the separation by specific types of dateline and the use of different tenses for different strands of the narrative. It was inventive the first time round, now it's becoming intrusive. My concern where patterns are involved is that having started as a support they can become a strait-jacket. Even a child reading something like 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' knows instinctively that the pattern is stronger for being broken. If that book just went on and on in the same way eventually the child would put it down and ask, "So what?"
    Hannah is a superb writer. Her plotting and feel for language is excellent. She is the last person to need to depend on pattern for support. However, I'm not certain she could break away from it now and stay within the series. When you break a pattern that has been as strongly established as this one has there has to be a major narrative purpose behind it. I could only envisage such a thing now if it was to bring about the sort of 'disaster' that would end the series as we know it.
    In terms of seeing Hannah write something different, I admire her writing so much I would read whatever she published and I certainly think she has a major novel tucked away in there somewhere.

  13. Thank you, Annie - that is all very useful to know! I see what you mean - if she changed the alternating-chapters-present-tense-past-tense structure in a future book, could that future book still be a 'Simon and Charlie' novel as we know it? Hmm...not sure. Let's assume not. So, my next question is: faced with a choice between a) more Simon and Charlie books, same structural pattern, b) more Simon and Charlie books but an attempt at a different structural pattern, or c)no more Simon and Charlie books, but new, completely different books (though still crime), which would you choose? Very best wishes, Anonymous

  14. Dear Anonymous Friend, (we have to stop meeting like this!) well, the first thing to say is that because I think so highly of Hannah's work and enjoy her characters so much, I actually went back and re-read all five of the previous books in the six weeks or so before 'Lasting Damage' was published. This meant that I was very very conscious of the patterns and perhaps people reading them just as they came out might not be. However, I still think that eventually it will become a problem, so to get to your question.....

    I think if she continues with the same structural pattern (and let's not forget that this is reinforced by the repeat of the same type of victim as well, or rather they reinforce each other) she is soon going to lose the type of reader who wants to be challenged by a book and even those who want the comfort of the familiar before too long. So, even though I do not want to lose Simon and particularly Charlie, of whom I am inordinately fond, I don't think there is much mileage left in this format. The very fact that I am able to use a word like format should sound warning bells to a writer of this calibre.
    It would be possible to break the pattern (in case you hadn't realised by now, my PhD was on narrative structure!). However, after this number of repetitions to do so would be signalling the climax of the overall narrative which we would have to see as the story of the relationship between Simon and Charlie. Now it may be, of course, that all this is pointless speculation on our part. There has been the reintroduction of the dreaded Alice, whom I started out liking and very soon grew to dislike quite forcefully. How would/will Simon react to discovering that Charlie has destroyed Alice's letter? That could certainly be a high point in that overarching narrative and could be signalled by a breaking of the pattern. But, if Hannah were to follow that route, to do so successfully she would, I think, either have to have the confrontation at the beginning of the next book and use it as a reason to change the patterns from that point on or follow those patterns to the climax of book seven and then use it to break both the pattern within the book and the pattern of the series. Your question, of course, was would I like that? As someone concerned with a writer's development I would love it. If it meant losing either Charlie or Simon, as a reader I would be upset, but I would get over it and I think it's preferable to option a). My question would be, does option c) have to be the only other option? Hannah wouldn't be the only crime writer to successfully run two sets of characters side by side. I would certainly like to see her expand her range and a different series would allow her to do that, but does that mean giving up Charlie and Simon? Perhaps the way forward would be to take the second option in the next book to break the pattern and then allow the dust to settle with a couple of books in another (non-patterned) series before going back to Charlie and Simon in books that had nothing to do with the earlier pattern.
    Goodness, I hope all this is making sense. What do you think?
    Best Wishes, Annie.

  15. I'm less sure than you are that the victims are very similar. Alice was compliant/naive-turned-scheming, Naomi (Hurting Distance)was a stroppy, proud-to-be-ruthless assertive type, Sally (Point of Rescue) was a typical adventure-seeking stressed working mum, Ruth (Other Half Lives) was a timid, broken victim who eventually turned into a seeker of truth, Fliss (Room Swept White) is an airhead who fancies her boss and Connie in Lasting Damage would be quite normal and nice if all weird things didn't keep happening to her. I also wonder: in spite of the sameness of the narrative structure, isn't there quite a lot of difference in terms of the underpinning philosophy and psychology from book to book? The ideas in each are different, and to a certain extent this could mitigate against the sameness of structure. E.g., Little Face is an examination of two distinct forms of madness: the kind where you don't know what the hell's going on or what you're doing, and the kind where you do something most people would call crazy in a calculated, rational way. One kind enables you to dodge responsibility, the other doesn't. Hurting Distance asks the question: if a rape victim uses her own traumatic story in a lie, but for a good cause, is that wrong? Other Half Lives looks at the way in which religion can be misused as a get-out-of-jail-free card to hold up whenever anyone mentions your past sins that you're not actually sorry for, Room Swept White is about enlightened and unenlightened ideas of justice, and the idea that our action, good and bad, should not be confused with our true selves... Does the variety of ideas/themes from book to book, in your view, compensate in any way for the sameness of the narrative structure? I also feel that in tone the books are different. Room Swept White is very 'crimey' - dead body right from the start, lots of extra detectives drafted in, briefings victims mounting up. Whereas OHL, LF and LD are all books in which, for ages, the reader isn't sure if a crime has been committed at all. Point of Rescue is as much a comment on contemporary have-it-all motherhood as it is a crime novel, Other Half Lives is gothic and spooky... Are the books really all that samey?
    Another question for you: do you dislike Alice just because she lied in Little Face? In Lasting Damage she is benign, isn't she?
    With regard to what you think should happen next, I mainly agree with you. I think for a new series to be introduced to run alongside the Charlie and Simon books would be an excellent idea. I also think some standalone novels in between the Charlie and Simon books would work v well. The only thing I might disagree about on this point is: I'm not sure a break in the Simon-and-Charlie narrative pattern would necessarily need to signal the climax of their story. Here's an idea for you: what if novel 8, say, were to be almost a standalone and in many ways very different from what's gone before - a more ambitious and perhaps a more literary novel featuring Simon and Charlie but in a radically different way? And then, after that, another in the old familiar structure...Do you think that could work? In theory, could there be a whole novel from Charlie's first person point of view, and then a return to the tried-and-tested format? It's possible to go in and out of change, isn't it, rather than change signalling an imminent end of Simon and Charlie's story and them as characters? I'd love to know what you think about these points! Your friend, Anon

  16. Sometimes when I really like a book I want one that is very similar--as strange as that may sound, so it's not always a bad thing when an author does the same sort of thing again, though of course then they risk becoming formulaic, which isn't a good thing either. Surprises are sometimes very good things. I have her first book and do think I'd like her very much and just need a chance to squeeze it in with my other reading.

  17. Danielle, I agree in principle. It's a bit like the Enid Blyton syndrome. I've never been against children reading Blyton (does this make sense to someone in the US?) because the very fact that they are similarly structured supports the child through the process of becoming a reader. When I'm not feeling like being particularly challenged then a book that follows familiar patterns is a real blessing and we all need that type of book. It's just that I think Hannah is such a good writer that she doesn't need to rely on this. I want to see her do more.

    Dear AF, I have so much that I could say in reply to this that I think the time has come to take this discussion off the blog. To that end I have just set up an e-mail associated specifically with the blog. You can access it by going to 'View my complete profile' at the top of the page and the clicking on the e-mail button on my profile page. If you send me a brief note so that I have somewhere to reply to I'll get back to you later in the day. Best Wishes A.

  18. Hi Annie

    Good idea! My email address is I am, however, still Anonymous - Cordelia Hope is not my real name!

    Kind regards,