Top positive review
Muddling But Engaging
on 11 November 2015
Sophie Hannah's fourth story in the Culver Valley Crime Series opens with Charlie Zailer receiving a visit from Ruth Bussey, another of Hannah's original, feisty female characters. Ruth is in great distress - not only because of something from her past about which we only learn later in the novel, but also and more urgently because her boyfriend, picture-framer Aidan Seed, has confessed to her that he murdered - some years before - a woman called Mary Trelease. But Ruth knows the woman he has described, and she's very much alive. So why does Aidan believe that he's guilty? As Charlie and her unconventional and frankly rather disturbed fiance Simon Waterhouse begin to investigate, they uncover a story of hidden identities, artworks and two brilliant contemporary artists, childhood trauma, romantic obsession - and Ruth's traumatic past. Can the truth - and the real threat to Ruth - be revealed in time?
This is another book that I have a hard time rating. I'm inclined to give four stars simply for the fact that it was so engrossing, and because I found myself really caring about Ruth and Aidan - and even to some degree the unstable Simon and Charlie. The story is certainly never dull (even though it's long - this is a big book) and I enjoyed the art elements and the examination of young people catapulted into fame. The way that Hannah entwined Aidan and Ruth's stories was also clever. I've found myself growing rather fond of some of the Culver Valley police team and was glad to reacquaint myself with the Snowman, Sam Kombothekra and his wife Kate and even Chris Gibbs. And the final section was appropriately spine-chilling.
At the same time, there were elements of the book that seemed a bit careless, psychologically unobservant or even at times plain silly. The Culver Valley police team seem curiously inefficient, and wouldn't they have spotted that one of the people involved in the case had changed their name? The scene in which Waterhouse was nearly accused of murder (for no reason at all) seemed unbelievable - and as Simon seems to solve so many cases wouldn't he be at Inspector level by now?! I am also surprised by the amount of freedom that detective constables seem to have - Simon appears to do most of the work on cases, with his Sergeant and Inspector tucked up back in the office. (It's not like that on 'Morse'!) Simon and Charlie's relationship is so bizarre that I can't quite believe they are still planning a wedding - wouldn't Charlie have tried to get help for Simon, at least? And what is it that makes them both want to persist with the relationship? The Ruth and Aidan story was certainly engrossing, but seemed to veer off in odd directions - I couldn't understand why one of the murders happened, and we never learnt the full story either about Aidan's adolescence or about his past relationship, so it was hard to tell what of the other accounts was untrue. And by the end, Hannah had set up such a complicated plot that she had to complete her story in a great rush, tying up loose ends rather too quickly. Also, I'm getting increasingly tired of her 'religion-bashing' (everyone in her books who is religious is either unpleasant or a nutcase, and her remarks about Quakerism are inaccurate and a bit offensive) and increasingly confused about where Culver Valley is meant to be - in Novel 3 it appeared to be near Cambridge, but by this novel seems to have relocated to Berkshire or Surrey.
I'd tend to stick to my four-star verdict (despite the above, and a very bloodcurdlingly violent scene in Ruth's past - sensitive readers beware!) because the book was such good entertainment, and because Hannah's characters are on the whole very interesting. But I'm coming to feel she needs to spend a bit more time on each of these books - there's a distinct sense of rushed writing at times.