TO GET an idea of the way in which Sophie Hannah's mind works, here is the moment that first inspired the hugely popular crime writer to turn to the genre. "I was in hospital, giving birth to my first child," says Hannah, also an award-winning poet, who turned to crime fiction more than 10 years after her first collection of verse was published. "I was exhausted, my labour had lasted four days and when my daughter was finally born the midwife offered to take her away so I could s
"But I couldn't sleep, so I went out on to the ward. The midwife was holding my baby, so I went to take it, but she sprang back." The baby wasn't Hannah's, though when she was shown her own daughter she couldn't see any difference between the wrinkled infants swaddled in identical green blankets. "I was this baby's closest relative and I had no idea what she looked like," she continues. "It got me thinking… what if when my husband came to visit the following day, I said, 'Look! That's not our baby!' Would he believe me?"
The chilling premise of a woman who is convinced her baby has been swapped became her first novel, Little Face. It topped the crime fiction charts and was described by one critic as "one of the best reads of 2006". Her third in the series, The Point Of Rescue, is every bit as creepy and its initial idea also came from an incident in her own life, more of which later.
This is where all Hannah's ideas come from, in fact. Watching this jolly, frizzy-haired and bespectacled woman rustle up lunch in her 250-year-old cottage in west Yorkshire it is hard to imagine her as the mastermind of these disturbing tales. Then she speaks. Not only is she obsessed (her word, not mine) with crime fiction, having grown up on a diet of Secret Seven and Agatha Christie, she is also very nosy. "I have always been a nosy person," she says. She is also very funny, in her writing and in person, and has been told by audience members in the past that she should do stand-up. "I'm especially attuned to the strange or the weird. I'm really obsessive, but in a way you need that level of obsession or you couldn't do it."
The Point Of Rescue is, like Hannah's other psychological suspense novels, a densely plotted thriller. She is delighted when I tell her it terrified me. "I can't tell, myself," she says. "I'm writing the fourth one at the moment and I described a nasty scene to my husband the other night. He was like, 'Stop it, that's disgusting.' I thought, 'Is it? Great!'" When she takes me to her writing room, it looks strangely familiar. "I used it as the room in which one of my characters in The Point Of Rescue is imprisoned," she says, cheerfully. Wasn't that a bit spooky? "No," she laughs. "I needed a room and thought, this one will do."
The story revolves around a married woman who has a week-long fling, which she tells no one about, and then a year later she thinks she sees the man on the news because his wife and daughter have been murdered. Except it's not the same man. The idea, executed with Hannah's impressive skill of combining psychological depth with a gripping plot and some unexpected humour too, came from her own experience as a struggling mother, dying to get away and willing to lie in order to do so.
"Like the heroine, a work trip came up," she explains. "I was desperately looking forward to it because my kids were much smaller and I was hardly sleeping. It nearly fell through, and I decided that if it did, sod it, I would just go anyway, book myself into a five-star hotel, and not tell anyone." She ended up going on the real trip, unlike her protagonist, whose white lie forms the bloodied backbone of the book.
Such has been the success of her crime novels, all of which feature the duo of DC Simon Waterhouse and DS Charlie Zailer in the imaginary town of Spilling, that Hat Trick Productions has optioned them for a Prime Suspect-style series. Hannah is now churning out a book a year – she reckons she's got another 30 in her – and her fourth, about someone confessing to the murder of a person who is still alive, sounds more complicated than ever.
"As a reader of crime fiction I'm always impatient with the limits of the genre," she says. "It's not the crime, but the mystery that does it for me. It's that desperation to know, that need for the fix. It's also wish-fulfilment because in life I'm often desperate to know things I will never know. With a good crime novel, you have that feeling, and you know it's going to be satisfied." v
• The Point Of Rescue is published February 21, Hodder & Stoughton, 12.99 www.sophiehannah.com