Hazel McHaffie

Sophie Hannah

A Room Swept White

When I was working on my latest novel, Killing Me Gently, I was affected quite profoundly by the emotions of two of my characters who were struggling mentally in different ways. The closer I got to knowing and understanding them, the more tense and edgy I felt.

Imagine that situation in a time of a pandemic such as now! Real and justified anxiety. Widespread uncertainty. Close confinement. A reduction in social contact and support. Distorted perspectives. Suspicion. Less resources for support services. It’s a tinderbox.

And thinking along these lines took me to a psychological thriller I read some weeks ago:  A Room Swept White by best-selling writer of crime fiction Sophie Hannah. A psychological thriller set in ‘my’ world, so it ticked all my boxes.

From the outset we’re plunged into a hugely disturbing story, set brilliantly by means of two scenarios: a police briefing in a murder case; and an interview between an investigative journalist cum documentary maker and a middle-class physiotherapist recently released from prison.

We know from the blurb on the back cover that three women have been wrongly accused of murdering children, that all three are subsequently freed, and that Dr Judith Duffy, a paediatric pathologist and prime expert witness in their cases, is under investigation for misconduct. Then one of the three women is found shot dead in her own home.

TV producer, Fliss Benson, is suddenly and unexpectedly promoted to work on a documentary about miscarriages of justice, and on the same day receives an anonymous card with sixteen numbers arranged in four rows of four figures. But she has her own private and personal reasons for not wanting to work in this area. The card has to be significant; of that she’s sure, even though her boss dismisses it out of hand. The murder victim had a card with sixteen numbers on it arranged in four rows of four, in her pocket. And one by one other significant women are singled out for similar cards all penned by the same hand, all on expensive paper.

Then CID strongly advises Fliss to cease all work on the cot-death murders documentary. She knows it’s what she ought to do; she also knows she can’t do it. It’s nothing to do with justice, it’s her only way of  fixing whatever it is that’s eating away at her and her self-identity.

So many factors in this story rang bells and gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. The pathological details in the cases of the babies who died – suffocation, smothering, shaking, salt poisoning … Professionals damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t …  One social worker driven to suicide because of his failure to safeguard a vulnerable child .. Munchausens-by-proxy … Witnesses changing their minds, swayed by so-called experts. Jurors confused by the conflicting convictions and arguments … Court testimony distorted, coloured, changing … everywhere doubt, suspicion. And it’s so skillfully written, I was kept in confusion and suspense to the very end.

So why did it ring so many bells? Not just because it explores similar ground to my Killing me Gently … ahhhh, yes, … of course … it’s there in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Hannah took her inspiration from three real-life cases of women wrongly convicted, whose stories I followed closely at the time, and indeed mentioned in a post on this very blog – Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel. Three human there-but-for-the-grace-of-God tragedies.

So, an excellent read, but perhaps not for vulnerable new mothers at this time of global tension and fear for the future.

Stay safe out there, everyone, and I hope you can find the space for reading those books you never normally seem to get round to!

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The macabre and the make-believe

Buckingham PalaceLast week we took our youngest grandchildren to London.

Tower BridgeAs you do, we soaked up the usual history and took lots of photos of the famous sites and spun a few yarns to bring the past alive, but a couple of the attractions on our list turned out to be far too scary for them to even try. Fair enough; no pressure. I was a ridiculously fearful child myself with far too vivid an imagination that got me into a lot of trouble, so I sympathise.

But their reaction made me think about tolerance levels and the power of the imagination. Which led me to the extraordinary talent some writers have for sucking you in to a horrifying or disturbing world. It’s just words on a page, isn’t it? A mere 26 letters strung together in various combinations. Make-believe. But put together in just this way those words can blot out reality, take over your emotions, keep you on the edge of your seat dreading what’s coming but compelled to read on. That’s clever. That’s power.

So in this frame of mind my eye was caught by reviews such as ‘the go-to queen of contemporary brain-twisting crime‘; ‘the twistiest plots known to woman’, ‘everyday tales of warped psychology’. Intriguing. And who is this queen of twists?  Sophie Hannah, that’s who. OK. Heard of her, not read any of her work. But I appreciate good plotting; I’m fascinated by psychology; I’ll give her a go. Broaden my horizons.

I chose a recent one: A Game for all the Family – billed as her ‘first standalone psychological thriller‘ on her website.

Justine Merrison has escaped from the rat-race of life in London (I’ve just been there so have an up to date sense of the pace and pressure of the metropolis) to an idyllic home in Devon (my neck of the woods so I know all about the very different pace of life and the picture postcard scenery).

Cottage in Devon

Appropriate choice so far.

Justine plans to spend her days ‘doing Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing’, so she cuts off all connection to her old life as a stressed TV executive. But before long her teenage daughter, Ella, becomes withdrawn and miserable. She eventually confides that her ‘best friend in the whole world‘, George, has been expelled from school for stealing her coat, a coat which she gave him as a gift. Incensed by the injustice, Justine puts pressure on the headmistress to reconsider her decision, only to be told that there is not, and never was, a George in their school. So far so good. I’m hooked.

Then Justine sees a creative writing essay Ella has written and she knows at once this is no innocent teenage make-believe. Here is a darkly disturbed mind spinning a macabre tale of a dysfunctional family spiralling out of control. Where has this information come from? And how does it link to the mysterious George for whom she’s pining? Before long, anonymous calls start … then threats … then sinister events. Graves are dug. Justine is caught up in a whirl of frightening happenings, which are wilder than any drama she ever worked on in her former life. Just where do the boundaries of truth lie? And how can she protect her family from the forces gathering against them?

I was sufficiently curious to keep turning the pages, but I have to confess the ending disappointed. Why? Because I was looking for something less obvious given the build up. Because the ‘bad guy’ was always ‘the bad guy’. Because the psychology seemed suspect to me. Because it left me disappointed.

So no more Hannah novels for me then … Ahhh, now there’s the moral of the tale. How unfair of me. She’s an internationally famous, best-selling writer with a string of awards under her belt; she must be doing something right. Even this book has been well reviewed by some critics. And yet I’ve judged her on a first taste. I’d hate it if someone did that to me, so it’s only fair that, at some point, I give her a second chance.

I am resolved.

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Books books and more books

Book tokenI’ve had a very generous book token burning a hole in my pocket for too long now. Holding me back was a real conscience about acquiring any more books when my shelves are already groaning, and I couldn’t get to the bottom of my my tbr pile if I did nothing else but read for the rest of the year.

But hey, everybody who knows anything says that writers must read … and read … and read. Voraciously. Comprehensively. Widely. Constantly.

Besides which, it would be churlish not to appreciate this wonderful gift, so I’ve succumbed and been spending it over the last few weeks. What fun. I delved into my file marked BOOKS I MUST READ, re-read the reviews, ordered my choices, and hey presto! here they are.

Books acquired - first pile(I didn’t realise this first batch were colour coordinated until I put them together to photograph!)

Books acquired - second pile

And …

Books acquired - third pile

And finally …

Books acquired - fourth pile

I might be gone some time!

Speaking of treasured books brings me to the lady in a village in Cambridgeshire who bought an old phone box for her husband as a birthday present in 2011. He restored it and installed it on the forecourt of their garage (on land they owned) and they filled it with over 800 books, opening it to their friends and neighbours. It became a free and much valued part of community life. Brilliant. Four years later though, the district council suddenly decided the phone box needed planning permission for a change of use, a process that would cost the owners £400. The poor lady emptied the shelves, bagged up the books and bundled them into a skip (I think for storage not disposal). Mercifully the council eventually saw sense and the phone box was reprieved, but not before the said stock were damaged by the wet weather. Nothing daunted she has now rebuilt her supplies and the phone box library is back in operation this month. Three cheers for her indomitable spirit and stunning services to reading.

The thought of 800 books going to waste like this makes me value my own collection even more.

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