Monday, August 3, 2015

WOMAN WITH A SECRET :: Sophie Hannah

"Why does everyone prize honesty so highly? Does anyone ever stop to ask themselves why lying is wrong, or do they just assume it is? What are we supposed to do when the world requires us to be a particular way and we can't manage it?"

Nicki Clements, married with two children, has been a pathological liar since childhood, resulting in lifelong issues and estrangements. When she experiences an unexpected void in her life, she turns to an online hookup site to fill it and becomes embroiled in a passionate relationship with a mystery man. As if that isn't enough to test her skills in deceit, Nicki gets caught up in a murder investigation when she acts suspiciously driving towards a police checkpoint near her house.

The checkpoint is related to the bizarre murder of controversial columnist Damon Blundy, found in his office by his wife, who was home at the time and swears no one came to or left the house. Why did the checkpoint spook Nicki? What was Blundy to her, if anything? Could she have killed him, and if not her, who?

These are the very difficult questions the Spilling Police have to answer, made all the more arduous when the corpse in question had thousands of haters due to his shock jock persona. Was it the rival columnist? The disgraced sprinter they argued about in print? The award-winning author dragged into the discussion? One of Blundy's two ex-wives? His current wife (quite interestingly named Hannah), who claims he was hiding something and couldn't have loved her because she's so ordinary? One of the women he is alleged to have had an affair with? The list is endless.

Woman with a Secret, Sophie Hannah's latest in a series featuring the Spilling Police, is told from several points of view. We spend quite a bit of time in Nicki's head, which is no swell place to be. We're also privy to emails and tweets and internet postings, all of which break up the narrative yet keep it flowing at a nice clip. On the other side, we have the investigators, including (dynamic husband and wife duo) Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse and their cohorts.

I always find Sophie Hannah's books to be inordinately intelligent and craftily plotted, with twists and turns galore, and also infused with smart humor. Woman with a Secret is no different. I was taken in by the somewhat closed-room mystery of Whodunit? to Damon Blundy and enjoyed the police procedural aspect of the book immensely. The number of characters, their interrelationships and histories may seem overwhelming, but Hannah handles them deftly. I never found myself confused as to who was who or doing what to whom. Hannah is a gifted and thoughtful writer.

There were just a few marks in the not-so-plus column. Nicki can be a lot to deal with, and much of her behavior will have readers shaking their heads. To Hannah's credit, she provides background rationale for the questionable behavior and at least writes Nicki as a woman in touch with the fact that her choices aren't always the brightest.

I try not to pick on plots for being beyond realistic, we all know how truth can be stranger than fiction, but some of Woman with a Secret is pretty far out. How that impacts each reader's experience will depend on how far they like push the bounds of reality. I sighed more than a few times, but Hannah provided enough context to the madness that I could roll with it and continue to enjoy the overall story.

As an interesting (or not) aside, I thought some of the issues regarding marriage and fidelity were curious. It struck me that almost every character was committing adultery, many fairly nonchalantly. One of the married characters muses about why marriage is so important, when maybe it's nothing more than "a word accompanied by a certificate."

I'm not sure where this all fit in the story. It's not the only time Hannah does a little dabbling in social commentary. But while I really liked her riff on public apologies by celebrities, which was shorter and to the point, I didn't really find much added by the marital woes of so many secondary characters, particularly when Nicki's husband Adam was rendered almost a non-entity.

Woman with a Secret is a fun read that kept me guessing and engaged. Hannah is a smart writer and those smarts shine through in all the work of hers I've read. I like the style of her series, which utilizes the same police force but focuses on the perspective from the other side of the line, and the relationship between Zailer and Waterhouse is a fun one to revisit.

STREET SENSE:  If you're a fan of smart procedurals with a psychological bent, and don't mind a bit of far out behavior and nuttiness, you're going to love Woman with a Secret. I've not been let down by a Sophie Hannah book yet, she's a fantastic writer who always brings something fresh to the plate.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Two doors between me and the children now: one pulled to and one firmly closed. This is how habitual liars measure their safety: by the number of closed doors between them and their loved ones.

COVER NERD SAYS: While this cover is nothing spectacular, it's right in my attention-grabbing wheelhouse. I'm a sucker for a blurry, rain-streaked window image with a semi-amorphous font, there's no getting around it. Such covers are highly evocative of mystery, suspense, secrets, and psychological issues screaming out for the clarity I'm drawn to find inside. Here, the cover serves the content well.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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