From the industrious and laurel-laden pen of Sophie Hannah — 11 psychological thrillers and five collections of poetry, Crime Thriller of the Year — comes The Narrow Bed, a not so much edge-of-your-seat thriller, but a better read while lying-on-the-bed whodunnit in the tradition of Agatha Christie, whose estate chose — no surprise here — Hannah to author The Monogram Murders, the first revisiting of Hercule Poirot.
In The Narrow Bed, Hannah combines her gifts as crime sleuth and poet (she was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award in 2007) to concoct a serial killer who knows her Emily Dickinson from her Emily Bronte, and sprinkles obscure couplets like confetti before selecting her victims who share one commonality: friendship.
As serial killers go, and we are under no illusion from early on because the clues are neon lit that Hannah’s is a misogynistic loner whose signature is sending little white books with poetic aphorisms to their victims, this should be an open and shut case, because the police have enough DNA and circumstantial evidence from the first couple of murders to point the finger in the right direction.
The killer, nicknamed Billy, is no rocket scientist, and all of the victims are murdered either shortly before or shortly after their best friends also met with the grim reaper.
Regarding the team of detectives assigned to the case, some of them stock characters from John Thaw’s The Sweeney (‘When I first saw you, I thought, ‘yeah, wouldn’t mind getting conker-deep in that,’ one subtle cop admits to a witness, a feminist with more thorns than a dozen roses, who sprinkles her dialogue with ‘women are the inferior class in an exploitative hierarchy.’
Does Hannah think people really talk like that?) there are just too many Indians chasing Billy and not nearly enough chiefs.
If you can untangle the affairs and the petty jealousies among the detectives and those helping them with their enquiries, a columnist and a comedienne without a single funny line in the novel, only Billy’s targets seem normal and they don’t get to hang around. Pity.
Montage works for films but Hannah’s insertion of e-mails, journalism and excerpts from a novel in progress are an unnecessary impediment to the flow of the story.
I was startled, and then less so, when I read in the acknowledgements about the number of people it took to knock this book into shape: enough for a game of five-a-side-soccer. However, too many cooks do spoil the plot.
And I think it shows: Hannah’s trademark — everyone has a secret — will carry a plot so far, but if it takes a team of editors to spot plot- continuity errors in the novel’s gestation, how is your average reader expected to cope, or for that matter, care?
For example, there is a paragraph on Page 273, over half-way through, in which a detective lists eight names in a long-winded attempt to surmise — for the benefit of the reader — where the plot is at.
In real life, I doubt even Benedict Cumber- batch could manage that in one take.
However, The Narrow Bed makes no pretence to mimic the verismo of life as we know it, and recalls the worst excesses of Agatha Christie.