Author of the Month

Name: Sophie Hannah

First Novel: Little Face

Most Recent Book: The Other Half Lives

'Hannah, like Rendell and Fremlin before her, takes ordinary domestic setting and turns them into something extraordinary.'

Ruth Bussey has escaped from a past that has left her physically and mentally scarred. Meeting Aidan Seed is the best thing that has happened to her for years. That is until he decides that to show his affection for Ruth, he needs to confess to killing a woman called Mary Trelease years ago. But Ruth knows this cannot be possible – she met Mary Trelease only months before. Despite her constant reassurances, Aidan refuses to believe that the woman he killed is still alive. Desperate to bring their relationship back to an even keel, Ruth seeks the help of Charlie Zailer, a police officer who also has a past and - like Ruth - is scarred by the circumstances.

Visiting Mary at her home and finding her very much alive, the police decide that they really do not have a case to investigate. But Charlie is adamant that Ruth is not telling her the whole truth and becomes obsessed with slowly digging and finding the truth.

As Charlie and her fiancée, Simon, negotiate their way through the precarious and highly emotional world of artists and their art, religion and people’s beliefs, they slowly peel away the charade played out by these three characters and find that the past has a huge part to play in the drama that is currently unfolding.

Sophie Hannah’s latest psychological novel is a mighty tome to say the least. At over six hundred pages the story needs to be gripping to make a reader traverse all those pages to a denouement that needs to be surprising, revelatory and ultimately satisfying. Does Hannah do just that? I believe she does. The Other Half Lives is a book that carries great weight both literally and metaphorically. The weight of the fear most of the characters carry around with them, the hurt of having been betrayed by someone and carrying the scars of an injustice inflicted upon them. With so many walking wounded you would think that The Other Half Lives might be a morose tale. Yes, it has its dark moments which are the main reason for many of us reading this book, but it is scattered with humour - especially from Charlie and her unconsummated relationship to her newly engaged fiancé, Simon.

Hannah, like Rendell and Fremlin before her, takes ordinary domestic setting and turns them into something extraordinary. Like many of her contemporaries, Hannah is extremely good at creating characters that are extremes. Mary Trelease is such a case; all her actions, even when lighting a cigarette, seem to say volumes about her jagged personality. Ruth Bussey, the main voice of the novel, appears to be annoying to begin with, seeming to jump at her own shadow and trying desperately to morph her life in with Aidan’s as though he is the last lifebelt on the ship. But as the book progresses, Ruth transforms and finds an inner strength within her.

Hannah obviously likes to provoke and religion gets a bashing on a regular basis with Simon’s Catholicism and Quaker meetings taken by a couple with a dubious past.

Sophie Hannah burst on to the scene with instant success with her first book. The Other Half Lives proves that she is an established force to be reckoned with. The scale this book commands is enormous and Hannah brings together all the strands with the steady hand of a writer of many years standing. The Other Half Lives is an excellent read and Hannah is more than capable of sustaining and raising the fear level whilst slowly showing her hand, yet always keeping something back. The conclusion is a marvellous piece of literary conjuring – everything displayed but always concealed with utter panache. The final solution is complicated and the reader will need to have all their senses and brain on full alert to take in all the facts of this engrossing thriller, but Hannah ultimately manages to lay all her cards down on the table. Definitely an excellent start to what appears to be an exciting year in crime!

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
I would describe my books as psychological crime novels, or psychological thrillers. This might sound strange, but I write about the sorts of crimes that are committed once people’s basic needs are taken care of, rather than the sort committed in order to fulfill those basic needs. So, for example, I tend not to write about any crime that has a financial motive – drug dealers killing each other over territory, people-smuggling, gun-running, that kind of thing. Not that I’m suggesting access to Heroin or an AK47 is a basic human need! But everyone has to make a living, and therefore, material need as a motive for crime is not particularly mysterious. My main interest in crime fiction, both as a writer and a reader, is in compelling mysteries, so I tend to write about the devastation people wreak for both themselves and others, emotionally and psychologically, once all their material needs have been met. This doesn’t mean I only write about rich people; it means I write about people whose minds aren’t wholly taken up with thoughts of how to survive and put food on the table, people who have space for the sorts of neuroses and strange preoccupations I’m fascinated by. The crimes committed in my novels aren’t the sort that you’d come across every day – each one is a crime that would happen only to those specific people in that particular situation.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I am a crime fiction addict, and read practically nothing else. I read all the subgenres – gory thrillers, traditional detective stories – and in terms of series or standalone, I don’t really have a preference. I always devour the new Val McDermid Tony-Hill-and-Carol-Jordan novel, and the new Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford novel, as soon as they’re published, but I also can’t wait to get my hands on the new Nicci French – and she doesn’t have series detective characters.
3) Your four psychological novels have all had a domestic setting. Do you believe you invoke a better sense of menace by portraying ordinary people? Or do you think that most of us have some secret to hide?
I’m more interested in the personal than in the public/political – and yes, my crime novels all have as their setting the relationships between people. I’m never sure about the word ‘domestic’, because my characters do also go outside and walk down the street, and sometimes even run through town in a panic while being pursued by a psychopath. They don’t stay at home all day baking lemon meringue pies. But I suppose you mean domestic as in ‘not about corporate corruption’ and that sort of thing. Partly the reason for this is because I don’t really understand financial organisations and the political world. I send my bank statements and anything scary and financial straight to my accountant, unopened, because I’m numerically dyslexic and terrified of complicated tables of figures. Whereas I think I have a good grasp of people and how their minds work. As for politics, sometimes I’ll be watching the news with my husband and there will be a politician on the screen and he’ll say, ‘He’s such a liar – he doesn’t mean a word of it,’ and I’ll have no idea how he knows, since the bloke on the screen is invariably someone he’s never met and only heard about second hand. Finally, I write about the personal because, in my experience, the people to fear and the people with the power to ruin one’s life are generally one’s nearest and dearest. Secrets? I think it’s about half and half. A lot of people are exactly who they seem to be, and a lot aren’t. The trick is being able to tell the difference.
4) In ‘The Other Half Lives’ there is a lot about artists and picture framers. Did you need to do a lot of research in this area?
Luckily I needed to do hardly any research, apart from spending an afternoon with my friendly local picture framer! I’m obsessed with art and collect paintings in the way Ruth, my heroine, does, so I could write about obsession with art quite realistically without having to research it at all. I also spoke to an art critic and a gallery owner, but since the main artist in the book mysteriously refuses to sell any of her work, again, most of what I needed to know was psychological – why on earth would a talented artist living in squalour be determined to prevent anyone from buying, or even seeing, her work?
5) The Other Half Lives is a sizeable story at over 600 pages. Did you feel you had a lot to say with such tormented, diverse characters like Ruth Bussey, Charlie Zailer and Mary Trelease?
Actually, it’s more like 500 pages – you must have read the proof copy with the bigger typeface! I was uneasy about writing a long book, because several people had drummed into me over the years that books should be short. But I knew the story I wanted to tell, and after I’d pared it down as much as I felt I could, leaving only the essential elements, that was how long it was. I didn’t want to cut out anything I felt was essential to the characterization or the plot. I think the reason it had to be long was because I had a lot of main characters, all of whom are complex: Ruth, Aidan, Mary, Charlie, Simon – none of their mental agonies could be squeezed into two hundred pages, unfortunately. But I’m hoping the novel is sufficiently fast-paced and won’t seem as long as it is!
6) The main action of the book takes place within seven days. How was it to write about these characters, their problems and the incidents that take place whilst keeping within such a tight time frame?
The tight time-frame was actually very helpful. When you’ve got a complicated plot, you need as much structure as possible, and knowing exactly when everything is happening and tying it tightly together really helps. In real police work (I do a lot of police research) things tend to happen very quickly – sometimes hundreds of police actions are packed into just a few days, depending on how many officers are working the case. Often a case is solved within a week or a fortnight or it isn’t solved at all. Also, I think it helps with the pace if the time-frame is tight. But I would at some point like to write a story that unfolded over perhaps several months – maybe I’ll set myself that as a challenge.
7) You are well known for writing poetry. What was it about the psychological novel that attracted you to write your first crime novel, Little Face?
Poetry and crime fiction have a lot in common – in particular, the importance of structure. In a poem, every word has to be in exactly the right place in relation to every other word, or the whole thing falls down. It’s the same with a crime novel. If you don’t plant X piece of information in Chapter 3, then the revelation in Chapter 20 isn’t going to work. I’m really interested in structure, which I think is what attracted me to the two genres.
8) In ‘The Other Half Lives’, you touch a lot upon different religions with different characters and how it affects them and their point of view on daily life. Why did you add this aspect to the novel?
I was interested in the idea of redemption. First of all, the genuine kind, where someone does something wrong, is truly sorry, and becomes a better person – which may or may not include becoming religious. But I was equally interested in the phoney kind of redemption, where someone does something terrible, then quickly joins a religion as the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card – for selfish reasons, in order to gain a sort of immunity from condemnation – ‘Tee hee, I’m with God now, so you can’t get me’. I had read a book about George Fox, the founding father of Quakerism, and it seems he was a compassionless, self-righteous, punitive tyrant. I’ve met loads of Quakers who are absolutely lovely – tolerant, peaceful – and I was curious about why they didn’t mind being part of a religion founded by an out-and-out git. I was also curious about parents - like Ruth’s in the book, and Simon Waterhouse’s – who have no qualms about imposing religious identities on their children, and the effect that this might have.
9) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. Pure genius.
10) What is your favorite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
Vertigo, by Alfred Hitchcock
11) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I am a huge crime and thriller fan. My favourite authors are Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Nicci French, Tana French, Jane Hill, Karin Alvtegen, Jill McGown, Agatha Christie, Val McDermid – in all cases, because I find their books absolutely gripping and full of suspense.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller read of all time?
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine