I always find it very hard to review Sophie Hannah’s books. They are written with intelligence, wit and force. Their convolutions and twists of perspective constantly wrong-foot the reader. There is usually at least one very well-depicted character. But there is something about them that is crazy, most obviously the way in which the police force go about their business. Knowing the likely pros and cons in advance of reading it, Kind of Cruel is pretty good – if you can forgive it some bizarrely unreal elements.
The basic plot concerns Amber Hewerdine, reluctantly seeking help from a hypnotherapist to cure her deeply set-in insomnia. While there, she has a strange encounter with a woman in the car park, and in addition has a powerful memory flash while under hypnosis: she imagines a list written on a piece of blue lined paper, reading “Kind, Cruel, Kind of Cruel”. Amber becomes obsessed with trying to remember where she has seen this list, as she is convinced it is going to provide a significant link between two unsolved murders in the area.
The murders fall under the jurisdiction of DC Simon Whitehouse and colleagues. The initial descriptions of these police officers and their hated superior at the station are ludicrous, and the reader simply has to metaphorically close her eyes as the men debate their inner lives and motivations, etc. Luckily, there are only two scenes of significance “at base”; after this, the police officers just pop in and out of various encounters and play their parts in the plot development – which isn’t very satisfactory but at least does not overbalance the good part of the book, which essentially is about the reliability of memory.
The story of Amber’s life as it gradually emerges, is compelling. More is revealed about the two murders, one of which has affected Amber and her husband directly, but the other of which seems completely mysterious, with no motivation or suspects ever having turned up. Is Amber’s memory of the strange list real or significant, is it just her imagination, or is it hiding other memories which she wishes to bury? What is the reason for her sister-in-law’s strange disappearance and later mysterious reappearance one Christmas day nearly ten years ago? Clues and ideas are thrown up regularly, with the reader desperately trying to see how they fit together or (knowing this author) which are McGuffins. At the same time, a rounded portrait of Amber, her sister-in-law and their families emerges.
The strength of this novel is the psychotherapy. The chapters told from the point of view of the hypno/psychotherapist, including descriptions of Amber’s sessions, are insightful and quite moving in their depiction of the removal of the layers by which our minds protect ourselves from what we can’t face. There are oddities – I find it hard to believe that any therapist would allow Simon, a policeman, into a session with a patient even if the patient did agree to this. The see-saw nature of the author is also shown by the Charlie/Simon relationship, which in previous novels has been totally obscure but here is analysed and to some extent explained. All good, but the way in which this diagnosis is made is completely unbelievable – via emails between Charlie and the therapist. However, whatever the mechanism, we as well as Charlie now understand a bit more about her husband’s behaviour.
The outcome to the crime part of the plot is both clever and silly. The identity of the murderer is not hard to guess, but the reason for the crimes is withheld till the end of the book in a very suspenseful way. Yet the final revelations fall flat, not helped by lots of exposition in a long interview which mostly consists of Simon stating his deductions and opinions. I was left thinking that the first murder was a strange way to achieve the perpetrator’s aim, and the second murder unnecessary given the events described. But, I might be told, that is the nature of insanity.
I borrowed this book from the library.