Saturday 10 December 2016

Books: Postmodern twist makes for a compulsive thriller

Crime: A Game for All the Family, Sophie Hannah, Hodder&Stoughton, pbk, 432 pages, €25.50

Andrew Wilson

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Balance: Sophie Hannah explores the fine line between ordinary and monstrous
Balance: Sophie Hannah explores the fine line between ordinary and monstrous
Sophie Hannah: A Game for all the Family

'I think you'll appreciate the truth more if you struggle for a while to work it out, and then eventually succeed," writes one of the characters in Sophie Hannah's psychological thriller.

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"The harder it is to come by, the more you will value it when you get it. (This is why mysteries are the best kind of stories: because you only get the truth at the very end, when you're absolutely desperate …)"

Postmodernism and crime fiction are not easy bedfellows, and it takes a master (or mistress) of the genre to balance the clever-cleverness of the meta-text with the skill needed to build and maintain suspense; after all, there is nothing like a heavy dose of hypertextuality to get in the way of a damn good story.

However, in A Game for All the Family, Hannah - the poet and author of 11 bestselling crime books, including the recent Hercule Poirot novel The Monogram Murders -manages to balance postmodern playfulness with a strong narrative drive. The result is a book that is both a complex brainteaser and a compelling and compulsive read.

The story centres around Justine Merrison, a former TV executive and married mother of one who moves from London to Devon to start a new life. Soon after arriving at her idyllic house, 'Speedwell', on the banks of the river Dart, Justine starts to receive a series of increasingly threatening phone calls from a mysterious woman. At the same time, she reads a story - apparently written by her teenage daughter Ellen - set in Speedwell, which relates the history of the murderous Ingrey family. Are the Ingreys real or made-up? Is life going to start imitating fiction? And who is the real author of the story?

The plot becomes even more complicated when Ellen tells her mother that her best friend George from school has been expelled. Trying to ease her daughter's distress, Justine takes it upon herself to find out the reasons behind his 'expulsion', only to be told by the teachers that George has never been a pupil there.

The resulting narrative examines the way we fictionalise our lives by shaping events and recasting people as characters in dramas of our own making. For some, this can be pathological and dangerous. "Does anyone know what another person's imagination is capable of?" asks Justine's husband, Alex, articulating the central theme of this book. Lies, we are told, "can create facts. So can fictions".

Hannah - like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell before her - is an expert at exploring the fine, delicate line between the ordinary and the monstrous, yet she interweaves her everyday tales of warped psychology with a healthy dose of humour, some of it sophisticated and knowing.

"Here, as you will soon discover," writes the narrator of the Ingrey plot, "we have a known front-story wrapped around and rooted in an unknown back-story", a sentence which neatly encapsulates the secret of a good thriller. "Don't think you can work out what is going to happen before I tell you, because you can't," runs another line. "There are some stories so unimaginably horrifying that no normal imagination could produce them."

A Game for All the Family is one such story, the product of an author with an extraordinary imagination, working at the height of her powers.

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