Hazel McHaffie

wrongly accused mothers

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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