Book review: Kind of Cruel, by Sophie Hannah

Kind of Cruel
by Sophie Hannah
Hodder and Stoughton, 2012.

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.

Read other reviews of Kind of Cruel at: Euro Crime (Susan White), The Observer, Shotsmag. There are many other good reviews of this book around, including on UK Amazon.

17 thoughts on “Book review: Kind of Cruel, by Sophie Hannah

  1. This is a good review, as always. For some reason, I cannot read Sophie Hannah’s books. I read two and that is my lifetime limit. The books are too creepy and eerie for my reading taste, just too over the top. I’m glad to learn enough about this book to know it isn’t my cup of tea.

    • I have found one or two of her earlier books a bit too creepy for me, but this one is not like that. The character of Amber really makes this novel, she’s much better-depicted, and easier to identify with, than most previous (non-police) Sophie Hannah main characters.

  2. Another excellent review Maxine. Good to know the pros and cons of Hannah’s books for whenever I find the time to read any of them.

  3. I should give Sophie Hannah a go. Heard so much about her, yet I haven’t read one book from her. I’m not sure if I would buy into unrealistic reasons for murder, but we’ll see. Thanks for the review.

    • The trouble with reviewing crime fiction is that if you think something is unrealistic as a motive, or doesn’t work, you can’t write it down as it would be a spoiler!

      • I agree. It’s tough to write about plot in a crime fiction book. You wouldn’t want to spoil it for the reader. I’m not sure I will read this, maybe you can email me and tell me the unrealistic motive!🙂

  4. Yes I should give Sophie Hannah a go too but haven’t got around to it. I like the idea that you can just pick up any of her books ie they are not part of her series.

  5. I like your excellent review and glad to see that Sophie Hannah is not everybody’s cup of tea. I’ve read three of her books and could never understand what they were getting at and have since given up. Sophie Hannah is one of a kind.

  6. Maxine – Thanks as ever for an excellent review. I’ve read one or two of Sophie Hannah’s books, and you’ve done a terrific job of pointing out the various sides of her writing. I’ve not read this one but I am fascinated by the idea of the role memory plays and how reliable it is(n’t). I’m nor surprised that Hannah tackled that particular topic, and I may read this one. I think I have to be in the right frame of mind for it…

  7. This is a good review and it encapsulates the very thing that drove me mad when reading my one and only Sophie Hannah book. With some authors I seem to be able to cope with ludicrous coincidences and similar tests of my own sanity (e.g. Kate Atkinson) but with the Hannah I can’t get past it.

  8. Yes, very good review – I read a couple in case the first one was just weak and am not going to read any more, they are too full of muddle and absurdities! I agree, as you say, that she is a much better writer than average, and that it’s a pity the books are so wacky!

  9. Thanks, everyone! She is very popular in the UK (possibly more so since the TV adaptation of her books) but for me she is a bit frustrating as she is so good as a writer at some things, yet so unrealistic about others.

  10. Maxine: I found your review interesting. In the end I was left wondering whether you are recommending the author and whether you will read another of her books.

    • I have read her previous books, Bill, but the last few times I’ve said “never again”! But here I am, reading this one. (I’ve said the same about Elizabeth George and haven’t yet been tempted to read her latest.)

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