Book review: Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

Lasting Damage
Sophie Hannah
Hodder & Stoughton 2011.

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.

Read other reviews of Lasting Damage at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham), The Book Whisperer, Novel Insights and Crime and Publishing.

About the book at the author’s website.

14 thoughts on “Book review: Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

  1. Maxine – Thank you for this thorough, well-written and candid review. I will confess I prefer a slightly more linear plot than this one, although I agree that Hannah creates very well-done hooks. I may give this one a go, just simply on that basis. In general, though, I’m not as keen on novels that spend too much time on side issues.

  2. Indeed, Margot, it is a bit like Dinosaur Feather by Sissal-Jo Gazan, a romantic or back-story saga with a crime novel stuck on the end! I enjoyed the last part but did get very irritated by the inner ruminations (getting nobody anywhere) in the first part. Charlie has also become a more passive character, here she takes little part in solving the crime (buying drinks while the men talk, etc) compared with Simon, whereas she is the senior officer (or was, she and Simon have been insubordinate and daft so many times previously that they may both be “other rank” status by now, I’ve forgotten. I’ve also forgotten why Simon is known as such a great detective, he is quite clever here, true, but in the last book he’s the one who went to interview the chief suspect wihthout telling anyone and without a mobile phone…..).

  3. From what I heard from pro crime fiction blogger like yourself and Bernadette, Sophie Hannah seems to be lower at the rung of the ladder for great crime fiction writers. Her books are well stocked in British libraries and I think I should give it a try one day and decide for myself.

    I like to read about “how and why” of the crime, like “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. Comparing this against Secret History could be a little off. Fingers crossed I’ll make up my own mind about Sophie Hannah one day.

    Thanks for the review.

  4. Thanks for your comment, JoV. The Secret History is much more obviously “literary” than Sophie Hannah – who is definitely romantic/crime popular fiction.

  5. A pity that she has these shortcomings, because as you say, her hooks are addictive. I´ll probably go on reading them when I am in the mood as long and rambling stories don´t always bother me if I know I can expect a proper ending.

  6. Read two books by this author. In all honesty, I felt like I was on the way to the dentist, had to grin and bear it. (no offense to Norm). Didn’t like the style, characters or plot. I guess that says it.
    Glad you gave the book a chance and wrote about it. Then people can read it and decide what to think.
    But definitely not my cup of tea. And I won’t be reading any more.
    I, on the other hand, just spent two days with Salvo Montalbano in Vigata, solving crimes, vicariously eating brilliantly-cooked pasta and fish, and laughing.

  7. I’ve been very restricted in my blog visiting of late due to a surfeit of boring end-of-financial-year work nonsense but I do like to eventually stop by and read your reviews which are a work of literary art in themselves irrespective of whether I’m going to read the book or not (and this one is definitely a not – one exposure to Charlie and Simon was enough for me).

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your lovely comments. I hope I was fair by this book – this type of story is not my cup of tea either and so I hope I was objectively fair to it. At least the ending made sense this time…not always the case in the past. Kathy – sounds a wonderful experience!

  9. Yes, I agree that one read of Charlie and Simon was enough for me.
    Your review was more than fair.
    And, as with personal taste in books, although I can spend a weekend with Montalbano in Vigata, and many others can, too, among my mystery reading friends Camilleri’s series won’t appeal to everyone. Such is the life of readers, and everyone is adament, too. It’s fun though.

  10. I generally like whodunits better anyway, but the digressions you describe just sound agonizing to me. A case of not wanting to be identified as a crime novelist, do you suppose?

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