Thriller Queens: Sophie Hannah and Clare Mackintosh

I really love a good thriller and looking at my Kindle library I currently have 188 books stored under my ‘Read: Thriller/Detective’ collection. I also have plenty of physical copies of books on my shelves: Dick Francis, Colin Dexter, Sue Grafton, Minette Walters (used to love her – but she seems to have stopped writing?), Agatha Christie, P.D.James, Thomas Harris…the list goes on and on. Love ’em all – ah.. my pre-Kindle days.

I am aware my recent posts (Previous recommendation posts: Amazing Books I Have Loved: Louise de Bernieres and Liane Moriarty; Comfort Reads: Keyes and Kinsella) have covered books I have read in the past. At my age, something I thought I’d read fairly recently turns out to be eight years ago, so I have consciously looked for something I have within the last year or so which still fulfills The Rules.

Sophie Hannah

If you want proof I read the books I recommend, look no further. Here is a video I took of me scrolling through the Hannah books I have ordered from Amazon. (Man, they should be giving me discounts all over the place for the money they make from me)

Look at that – 17 books ordered and read between 2011 and 2017 – pretty much everything she’s written. I need to catch up on the latest Poirot ones she’s published.

So why do I keep reading Sophie Hannah? Ordering her new book the second it comes out? Yes: great characters. Yes: evocative settings and clear, snappy writing. But it’s the stories which have me wanting more. That, and falling in love with the two central characters of the Culver Valley series, but more on that later.

Hannah has a great ability to hook you in with a striking puzzle. I’ll give you an example. It’s a story called ‘The Octopus Nest’ from her collection The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets. You can buy it here*

It’s just a short story from a collection which in itself is a small part of the whole Hannah canon. But listen to the premise.

The narrator returns from a rare night out with her husband to find the babysitter, Becky,  in an agitated state. Their son, Alex, is fine. But Becky has found something odd in the couple’s photo albums. She pulls out some to demonstrate. A holiday abroad, the sun is shining, a woman stands behind the family’s smiling faces. The narrator has never seen her before. What of it? she asks. The chills begin when Becky points out the same woman appears in all of their holiday photo albums. Is she… stalking them?

Pow!! There you are. Hooked!

And that’s just a short story! Imagine that kind of imagination let loose on a whole novel!

The Culver Valley Series

Don’t you just love it when you discover a new series and find out there are already ten to read? I had this once with the wonderful Wallander books by Henning Mankell. The series was complete when I heard about them so I spent a few months working my way through the whole lot. Warning – the last one is so sad I cried for ages and had to read non-stop Jilly Cooper to recover.

Little Face is the first in the Culver Valley books, and it works as a stand alone novel. The story is haunting. Alice has a two week old baby and goes out for the evening leaving her with her husband David. When she comes back she freaks out saying that someone has swapped her baby, and the one in David’s arms isn’t Florence but a stranger. She insists the police are called. Is this anything to do with the murder of David’s first wife?

To prepare for this post I decided to re-read Little Face.  A week later I have read Hurting Distance, The Point of Rescue and have now just started the fourth in the series: The Other Half Lives. I simply could not put them down – even though I’d read them all before.

I am trying to work out why I felt so compelled to keep reading one book after the other. Each of the books in the Culver Valley work perfectly well as stand alone stories. As twisty thrillers they keep you absorbed in the plot, trying to guess the next shift. But it’s more than that, I think it’s the mastery Sophie Hannah has in using different narrators.

Hannah brings originality and energy to the technique of weaving first person and third person narratives together. It’s the first person narrative which hooks you in. This narrator is always closely involved in the crime – usually a murder – which has occurred. They may be a victim, or perhaps connected with the murderer or even the murderer themselves.

Hannah creates characters about whom you find yourself caring very much. They have vulnerabilities and strengths which are appealing; always intelligent and resourceful, they report clues which turn you into reader/detective as you start piecing together all the information to solve the puzzle.

A good example of how well this technique works can be found in The Point of Rescue, the third in the series, where the first person narrative is supplemented by a diary written by the victim. I found myself cross-referencing what was said in the diary with what the detectives and the first person narrator were discovering, patting myself on the back when I spotted an inconsistency the others hadn’t.

I love reading these kinds of books where you have to go back to double check a name or detail like a police officer comparing witness statements. Red herrings abound and sometimes you are in the privileged position of knowing something the detectives don’t, which means you watch them going down the wrong path with great frustration.

The endings are pacy with some element of immediate danger introduced so time is of the essence. The stories are plotted with forensic attention to detail. I remember Clare Mackintosh saying in an interview that when writing her first novel – which has a striking twist – being able to guess the twist hung on a single semi colon at the beginning. She had to work very hard to get it right to ensure the twist worked.

You find this level of precision and control in Sophie Hannah’s book. Her plots also twist and flip back as much as a fairground ride. When I re-read Point of Rescue I actually gasped out loud when the suspect was arrested (waking up Rob as this was 3am – I couldn’t put the book down) EVEN THOUGH I’D READ THE BOOK BEFORE – the advantages of having such a bad memory.

So OK, the books are gripping, tightly written, pacy thrillers But why the urge to keep reading the next in the series?

Two names: Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. Alongside the first person narratives you have the third person ones which focus on the detectives involved in solving the case. Simon Waterhouse is a complex, rude, socially awkward yet brilliant detective. So far so familiar, still fascinating nonetheless. His sergeant, Charlie Zailer, is in love with him, but after a disastrous encounter at a work colleagues’ party – where Simon runs away leaving a naked and sorely embarrassed Charlie behind him – there is tension between them. Understandably.

They constantly bicker but Simon starts to realise ‘his brain doesn’t work’ when he is away from Charlie. It is the ever-so-slow development of their relationship which keeps you hooked on the series. That and the character of team leader Proust – the Snowman – who is hilarious and terrifying at the same time; he constantly quotes Latin at his bemused detectives. In fact all of the police characters – skillfully drawn and with disparate personalities which lead to interesting conflicts – are sympathetic. They may not all be nice people, but you can’t help engaging and empathising with them as they struggle to make the world a better place.

You can read a very good review of the eighth book of the series, The Carrier, here at The Boston Globe. I like it because it has captured the essence of what makes this thriller series such a good one.

Clare Mackintosh

My Mum recommended Clare Mackintosh. We are both addicted to reading and we once went on a holiday, just the two of us, where we agreed we were allowed to read at the dinner table with no obligation to talk to each other. (There is no way my Dad or Rob would let us do that) It was a fantastic holiday. We went sight seeing all day, then ordered room service and ate while reading, ending the day watching a film.

My Mum gets all her books from the local library (as well as having access to all my Kindle books – Amazon’s family sharing is a brilliant idea), and they always do promotions on new books. She is my ‘in’ to latest publications and she reads as quickly as I do so her recommendations are hot off the press.

I Let You Go has an explosive opening. A woman hurries through the freezing rain, clutching the hand of her five year old son. Without warning he pulls away from her, leaving her hand empty, and runs into the path of a speeding car. He is killed instantly.

Oh God, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Normally I would stop there. Since becoming a parent I find anything to do with children getting lost or killed is too painful to read. But, I couldn’t stop reading. The next chapter follows the police as they investigate the hit and run. That’s one of the reasons you are tugged into the story – the dynamic between Kate and Ray is engaging.

It’s a GREAT story line. Lots of twists and turns. When I finished, I immediately went to Amazon to pre-order Mackintosh’s next book, thus ticking rule number 5.

I See You, didn’t disappoint. Thank God I don’t travel by the tube very much as after reading this I would be completely FREAKING OUT if anyone caught my eye on my commute to work.

It’s such a brilliant idea and hats off to Mackintosh who keeps coming up with these great story lines. The story opens with Zoe Walker battling through her commute to and from work on the tube. Mackintosh’s brisk and straightforward descriptions rapidly build up a vivid impression of the weary horrors of commuting: The hot breath on your neck from a fellow-commuter standing too close, the umbrella jammed into the knee. So far, so familiar.

Your heart rate starts to speed up when Zoe, thumbing through a discarded Gazette sees her own photo in the listed ads. The only caption: ‘www.findtheone.com’

What’s creepy, and REALLY gets you gripped, is Zoe starts to see other ads showing different women. Then on the news she sees a woman has been murdered. Zoe recognises the woman – she was in one of ads… Will Zoe be next…?

SCREAM!

So… well worth a read. I did order the next one Let me Lie  – which came out on the 8th March – and I’ve just finished it.

What did I think? Well, it was good. I enjoyed it. It’s an interesting idea (I wouldn’t expect anything less of Mackintosh) but I guessed the twist very early on. The characters were sympathetic – I particularly loved Murray – but it was a tiny bit… meh. It ticked a number of my rules but not all of them. I didn’t find I was slowing down when I realised there wasn’t many pages left. (Rule no. 4).

So for that reason I can’t put a link to it. My – self-imposed! – rules are I will only link to Amazon (and receive a commission) if I can say, hand on heart, this book ticked all five of my boxes.

However, Mackintosh is on my list and I have no doubt I will be pre-ordering the next one. I am really pleased to have found her to add to my top author list.

As ever, it would be great to hear what you think of these books, and if you have any recommendations.

Happy reading, Warriors!

*NB Full disclosure: I have added Amazon links to the books I recommend for which – if you go on to buy – I will receive a small commission. Of course you are under no obligation to do so. 

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4 thoughts on “Thriller Queens: Sophie Hannah and Clare Mackintosh

  1. thehomeplaceweb

    I just finished Clare MacIntosh’s Let Me Lie a few nights ago, and didn’t find it as good as her first two. I guessed the ending with about 70 pages to go, but it was still a fairly good read. I have not heard of Sophie Hannah so will have to check her out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: ‘She Does Something Magical with her Characters’: Why I heart Lisa Jewell – Middle-Aged Warrior

  3. Pingback: My Best Summer Reads 2018 – Middle-Aged Warrior

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