Raymond Chandler praised Dashiell Hammett for giving murder back to the kind of people who commit it. This wasn’t an intelligent observation because in reality all sorts of people do commit murder. But, when Chandler went on to criticise the puzzle type of detective story, with its locked rooms, untraceable poisons, and ingeniously contrived set-up for murder, he made a better point.
There are crime stories so utterly improbable that to enjoy them the reader must not only suspend disbelief but discard it altogether. Such novels are often popular because they are essentially fantasies utterly removed from real life. They offer fun which you can’t begin to take seriously. They are also in a sense immoral because in real life murder is not a game.
Sophie Hannah’s new novel the telling error (with its irritating, affected lower case title) is such a book, ingenious, fanciful, but not imaginative because its plot is absurd and neither the murder nor the relations between the novel’s principal characters are remotely credible. Nevertheless it’s fair to say that if you leap these considerable obstacles you may find the narrative gripping.
It begins with a long e-mail posted on a site called Intimate Links>uk>all personals, and entitled “Looking for a Woman with a Secret”. (There are an awful lot of e-mails in the book). This leads on to the strangely contrived murder of a journalist who is famed for his outspoken and often outrageous columns. Several of them are reprinted in the novel, and I can’t think of any newspaper that might publish such things. No matter; this is one of the book’s lesser improbabilities. Anyway, it leads the police to assume, eventually, that the murderer may be one of the people he has pilloried.
They are, however, distracted by an investigation into the driver of a car seen behaving suspiciously in the vicinity of the murdered man’s home. She is a woman called Nicki, and the third-person passages recounting the progress of the police investigation are intercut with her first-person narrative. She is an exceptionally silly and tedious person – it’s brave of the author to invite us to spend so much time in her company: a congenital liar, deeply disturbed, who has been engaging in on-line romances, or exchanges of sexual fantasies, with two anonymous men who may, or may not, be the same person. Despite this, Nicki is a loving wife (with, as it turns out, a remarkably understanding husband) and a devoted mother of her ten-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. You may not be surprised to learn that she had a difficult childhood and dreadful parents.
The suspects, apart from Nicki, are the journalist’s victims: a decidedly less than convincing well-born Labour politician whom he accused of being a bad mother because, to further her career, she sent her son to a state school (her reason for doing so, we learn, was personal, not political, and her relationship with the journalist was not what it seemed); a fellow columnist who is always wrong; an athlete disgraced for drug use; and a prize-winning author of horror novels, not disgraced despite his admission of being a long-time junkie. You may also suspect the dead man’s wife, but perhaps only because the police seem to discount her rather quickly.
That’s the set-up, and Hannah tells her story with a good deal of verve and evident enjoyment. You may not believe a word of it, even while you read – and surely won’t when you lay the book aside. But you are likely to read on (though you may well skip some of Nicki’s narrative, feeling that a little time spent in her company is enough), and do so because Hannah has the ability to tell a story, no matter how ridiculous, with conviction.
The book is what is usually called a page-turner, partly because there is little to delay you on any page. That said, I am sure that most readers will actually be keen to find out whodunit. Some, at least, will be satisfied with the answer, even if they do conclude that the solution is every bit as improbable as the contrived murder set-up.
The police investigation itself is rather slow and not very professional – but then, if the police had been less talkative, the book would not have stretched to 357 pages. As it is, they are so loquacious that they might reasonably be charged with wasting their own (police) time.