The hook of Lasting Damage is, as usual with Sophie Hannah, inventive and addictive. A young woman creeps out of bed at night so as not to disturb her husband, boots up her computer and begins looking at a virtual tour of the interior of a house that is for sale in Cambridge. As she watches, the camera swings round to show the dead body of a woman on the floor of the living room. In a panic, Connie (the woman) runs to her husband (Kit), knocking a picture off the wall and injuring her foot in the broken glass. After attempting to calm down, Connie and Kit look again at the “tour” and find that the body has vanished, never to return (!).
So far, so good. Unfortunately the next 250 pages of this novel are mostly one long side-issue, again as I’ve come to expect from this author. We learn a great deal about Connie’s state of mind, her relationships with her homoeopathic therapist Alice (a character from an earlier book), her parents, sister, husband and so on. We are also told more events in the lives of the confused romantics who inhabit Spilling police station. The uber-neurotics Charlie and Simon are now married and on their honeymoon, which we see through the constantly agonising eyes of Charlie, who still can’t make up her mind whether she loves Simon, whether he loves her, and daren’t talk to him about it. For some reason they have rented an entire hotel just for themselves, and are obsessive about nobody knowing where they are. Charlie’s sister Olivia, the only person entrusted with the secret location, begins a fling with one of Charlie and Simon’s colleagues.
Connie tells Alice about her experience, whereupon Alice persuades her to report the “murder” to Simon, with whom Alice has had previous dealings. Simon’s on honeymoon of course, so Connie ends up dealing with his colleague Sam. When she is interviewed by Sam, she tells him endless details about her life, her thoughts and emotions – Sam listens to all this and after investigating the house and finding no evidence of wrongdoing, cannot help further even though he mentally beats himself up as he is convinced Simon would have worked out whether Connie is deluded or whether a crime has in fact occurred.
Eventually, another woman comes forward who has also seen the same body while taking the same virtual tour. After much agonising by Olivia and Sam (separately), Sam calls Simon and the honeymoon is cut short. In the meantime, Connie has made contact with the doctor who owns the house, a woman called Selina, but Selina is scared of Connie and has moved out into a hotel while her house is being sold. Connie is very confused by this turn of events; as she is constantly fainting and having panic attacks, she becomes worried about her sanity as well as her physical health. Another part of the puzzle is provided by occasional insert pages of bits of paper from a police evidence file. They all relate to a family called the Gilpatricks, consisting of children’s school reports and poems. Somehow, these must be relevant to what is happening to Connie (we’ve been told this in the preview chapter).
After going round and round in circles for so long, the book picks up for the last 150 or so pages. Simon and Charlie return to England and, with Sam’s help, work out what is going on, mainly by dint of Simon doing some basic police work that any one of his colleagues could have done on day 1. At the same time, Connie decides to take matters into her own hands. The final section of the book consists of two long pieces of exposition, one by the three police officers who take the opportunity of being stuck in a traffic jam en route to the scene of the presumed crime to explain the entire plot to each other in great detail; and the other by Connie and the person/people she encounters in their own particular end-game. These two long explanatory sections are quite compelling in their own right, and certainly tie together all the micro-clues and strangenesses that have cropped up earlier with many neat touches. However, they certainly aren’t realistic, relying as they do on characters explaining everything to each other.
One appeal of this loose series of books is for readers to find out more about the personal lives of Charlie, Simon and their colleagues and families in the context of each book’s new mystery centred on non-series characters. Lasting Damage is structured quite strangely, though, as all the ongoing developments among the series regulars are provided in the first (longer) part while the crime investigation essentially gets nowhere; then in the second, shorter part of the book, the crime, motivation and modus operandi are all revealed – but the series “story” is jettisoned and so several characters are left in mid-air from earlier in the book.
The strengths of the novel are in the “how and why” of the crime, rather than the “who”. Personally, I’d prefer much less of the interpersonal agonising of the recurring characters and hence a leaner novel that focuses on the particular mystery and the psychologies of those caught up in it; but if you do like a rather grand guignol story, and don’t mind a lack of realism in the police procedural aspects (for example witnesses wandering out of the police station in the middle of crucial interviews) then this is a series for you.
I had decided I would not read any more Sophie Hannah books after the last one, but as Lasting Damage was in the library last week I borrowed it to give her another try.