Mystery Books for Sale

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by Sophie Hannah
Hodder & Stoughton, August 2006
$7.99 GPB
ISBN: 0340840323

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

LITTLE FACE is one of those books which wants to call attention to how clever it is and how it 'challenges genre conventions', as the cliche has it. It does this by using dual narratives, one in the first person being that of Alice Fancourt, and the other in the third person, mainly centring on Simon Waterhouse, with occasional variations featuring his sergeant Charlie Zailer. In addition these narratives are chronologically different, so that of Alice occurs, in general, about a week before that of Simon/Charlie. The strands are only drawn together at the conclusion.

The problem with all this is that genre conventions exist for very good reasons, and have been established by far, far better writers than Hannah over the past century. Of course they can become cliched, stale, tired; and of course all great mystery writers, in their own ways, challenge the conventions. But they do not neglect some basics, and in particular the most basic of all - to have a decent plot which is narrated in such a way as to hold the reader's interest, whether this is by bafflement, excitement, compelling characterisation, excellent prose, even humour. If you 'challenge the conventions' by neglecting this most basic one, then it is highly probable that, as in this case, the resulting book will merely challenge the reader - to finish it!

Where to begin? The absence of any sense whatever of location. The fact that every single character, with the possible exception of Alice herself (and that is only a possibility) is either unpleasant or deeply unpleasant. No, it is the fact that, ultimately, there is no plot here, which is most baffling. I ploughed on, through a succession of ever more unpleasant events, waiting for a plot. And none came. Yes, events are explained ; but there is nothing surprising about the explanation.

The most astonishing feature of this book is that it apparently garnered rave reviews in the mainstream press. Why should this be for such a poor mystery? The answer of course is that this is mystery fiction for reviewers who dislike mystery fiction, and don't know what they are talking about. It may be that judged as a straight novel this work has something to recommend it, although it would not be to my taste. It is to some extent well-written. But judged as a mystery - and that is what I am here to do - it fails because it neglects the basic conventions. Challenge those conventions by all means, but only when you understand what they are, can write competently within them, and realise why they exist.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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