Interview: Sophie Hannah, author of The Other Half Lives

Sophie Hannah’s latest psychological page turner will keep clever readers guessing right till the end. By DAVID ROBINSON

IF you have ever finished a crime novel having already correctly worked out whodunit and why and are feeling slightly disappointed and cheated as a result, allow me to introduce you to Sophie Hannah. She writes, she boasts, “PhD level crime fiction”, and she’s not wrong: if you reach the end of her latest, baroquely plotted novel Kind of Cruel one step ahead of her, I wouldn’t just be surprised but downright suspicious and sceptical too.

Already, six novels into her career, her books have started to sell so well that they make the top ten in both hardback and paperback lists. Last year ITV screened her third novel, Point of Rescue, as a two-hour two-parter; next month it’ll be doing the same for her fourth, The Other Half Lives. Add in regular media appearances on such programmes as Late Review, remind yourself that she is still only 39, and you can’t help thinking that if Ruth Rendell ever wants to hang up her crown as Britain’s reigning queen of the psychological thriller, there’s one Manchester-born mother of two whom it would fit perfectly. She always starts, she says, with an intriguing puzzle. Amber, the protagonist of her latest novel, sees a hypnotherapist to get help for insomnia. Under hypnosis, Amber finds herself saying: “Cruel. Kind. Kind of Cruel” – a phrase that means nothing to her, which she has seen somewhere but doesn’t know where. A couple of hours later, the police turn up at her door. Those words she said under hypnosis turn out to be the only clue found at the scene of a murder that she knows nothing about.

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At first, once Sophie Hannah has come up with the puzzle, she won’t write anything down – no notes, no story. She’ll carry on with her everyday life – editing her previous book, looking after her two daughters, or maybe visiting her parents who live not too far away from her, just outside Cambridge. (Scotsman readers might know at least one of them – her mother is Adèle Geras, the award-winning children’s writer who used to review on these pages, and who is married to acclaimed Marx scholar Norman Geras.) All the time, her unconscious will be beavering away at a solution. And one thing about a Sophie Hannah solution: it won’t be an obvious one.

The key to those words – Cruel. Kind. Kind of Cruel – Amber is convinced, lies in the mansion in which her extended family had spent Christmas. In it, there is a locked room. Perhaps it holds the answer? Certainly something very strange happened that Christmas: four members of Amber’s family disappeared. Then, two days later they returned. None of them wanted to talk about it.

From those two puzzles – the “Kind. Cruel. Kind of Cruel” murder clue and the locked room – Hannah concocts a mystery of satisfying complexity in which frequent clichés of the genre (the locked room itself, for example), are turned inside out are turned inside out. If that were all her novels did, they would be admirably cerebral but uninvolving. Unfortunately for her rivals, Hannah does texture, depth and character with similar panache.

“I am trying to write novels for properly clever people,” she says, “but I also want them to be proper novels that also stick in a person’s mind and have an atmosphere about them. Lisanne Radice, my first agent, used to tell me, ‘You have to cut everything out of your writing apart from what furthers the plot and what furthers the characterisation.’ And that’s one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. But the point is, characterisation is a part of plot. Even a scene in which Amber is talking to her children about their maths homework will turn out to be relevant, even though it mightn’t seem like that at the time.”

Hannah is a crime nut, always has been, so knows how few crime novels have that mixture of driving plot and credible character. Hers, however, do – just like Ruth Rendell’s darker, more challenging Barbara Vine novels. These days, she says, she is finding even harder novels easier to write: she no longer feels the need to ask her fiction editor sister (yes, everybody in this family is involved with books) for advice on plotting. Rewrites are becoming less onerous, almost easy. Kind of Cruel is, she says, “my best book by some distance”.

It is also, she agrees, her most complex. Not in terms of the number of characters (A Room Swept White, about women accused of murdering their cot death babies, had far more) but in ambition. At its heart is a story about storytelling itself – the things about ourselves we tell that are true and the other truths which we either ignore or glide over. There are locked rooms, we realise, not just in the plot, but in the characters’ minds too.

Like Amber, at the start of Kind of Cruel, Sophie went to a hypnotherapist herself. “I’d never been hypnotised and I knew my story would be better if I had. I didn’t have anything for my hypnotherapist to hypnotise me out of – I don’t smoke, for example – so I said to her, ‘Why don’t you hypnotise me to eat less? That would be quite useful’.”

The hypnotherapist suggested Sophie try hypnoanalysis instead – “basically psychoanalysis under hypnosis”.

“We got on well, but she said I was a nightmare patient. I did about 15 sessions with her but then she gave up on me and said I was too clever, and my subconscious couldn’t get through. Her theory is that there is stuff I don’t want to come out from my subconscious and that I am clever enough to know how to analyse it and keep it there. The better you are at thinking, she said, the less good you are at letting your subconscious give things up and you won’t make a good patient. My hypnotherapist is based in Cambridge. It’s terrible, she says, because everyone there is trying to intellectualise and not to feel.

“I know from hearing others talk about their therapy that most people spend a lot of time crying in those sessions as stuff comes up. With me, even if my life depended on it, I wouldn’t be able to cry. Not with somebody there. Because even if I’m talking about bad and upsetting things, if there is somebody else in the room, I am trying to entertain them. If there is somebody there, I am in performance mode. I can only cry if I am on my own.”

Hannah’s novels, it must be said, hardly mirror the boring realities of true crime. “I am always attracted to the most interesting and unusual stories, “ she says, “and 99 per cent of most crime isn’t interesting or unusual. However, if you ask any police detective, they’ll all have had that one-off, unpredictable case that turned out to be really weird. And as long as those happen, I feel vindicated.

“Remember that canoe man case – the man who was living in a cupboard, going through a hole in the wall in his own house and then turns up on a Panamanian website? These cases might be one-offs, but they do happen.”

The only other occasional criticism levelled against Hannah is the extent to which her novels deal with damaged people. “It’s true,” she says, “there are very few well-adjusted people in my books. But I do think that’s normal. Because everyone does have their issues and hang-ups. And if you write about characters as I do, right from inside their psyche, you’re going to see everything – not just the well-adjusted bits but also the neuroses, the bitchy thoughts, the paranoia.”

Hannah has long been fascinated by psychological dysfunction – and can’t understand why more people aren’t. “Most people are psychologically illiterate. How many people would, for example, be able to tell you the ten key signs that someone is a narcissist? Yet there are narcissists everywhere and we need to be armed against them, so we should know about enmeshment, co-dependency and emotional incest. If we knew more about psychology we would be better equipped to deal with other people’s psychological damage which they might project onto us.”

In her own life, she adds, she “has had extensive contact with narcissists”, although she draws the line at saying who. One result, she adds, is that she has tended to accept that her own feelings matter less than theirs. Hypnotherapy, she adds, has taught her that she could look on her past in a different way, by focusing on what came up from her subconscious.

So she DID get something from hypnotherapy after all? “Oh yes. It works. The reason I stopped was that the book deadline was approaching and I needed to write the book.

“I love writing. When I’m writing, I am NOT in performance mode. That is coming from a non-controlled part of me, a more relaxed, spontaneous me. I am much more my real self in my writing than in my life. In fact, that’s probably really worrying.”

Maybe it is. But maybe it is exactly what we mean when we say someone is a ‘born writer’ too.

Kind of Cruel is published by Hodder, £12.99. The ITV adaptation of The Other Half Lives will be shown on 26 March.