Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

Sophie Hannah’s crime thriller, The Other Half Lives is a compelling read; with an intricate plot that holds you in suspense and keeps you engrossed from beginning to end. The unusual mystery begins to unravel when main character, Aidan Seed admits to new girlfriend, Ruth Bussey that some years ago he killed a woman by the name of Mary Trelease. Ruth is sure that the name seems familiar and soon remembers that not only has she met the woman; she is still alive.

The Police, who are intrigued by Aidan’s adamant belief in his own guilt and refusal to offer further details, along with the victim’s reluctance to talk to them, start to investigate a crime that appears not to have happened. However, when a murder does occur and Aidan, who has been tailed by one of the detectives, is witnessed at the scene of the crime, the plot becomes deeper and murkier than imaginable. Particularly, when the victim is a woman connected to Ruth’s own enigmatic past.

Even the characters appear baffled by the mystery of a crime that hasn’t been committed, just as we are. It is this sense that we are all unraveling the mystery together that keeps you engaged, fascinated and turning page after page.

Although, without a doubt Hannah’s cast of characters are what make the story come alive. Their lives are entangled with one another’s and messy. They have secrets and neuroses, all which have their part to play, but more importantly they seem to us, both real and solid just like ordinary, everyday people. This psychological element creates an intriguing dimension, in connecting their pasts to the present, creating a feeling of depth, of emotional intelligence; and offering a welcome understanding and insight in to the characters, and why they do, what they do.

What works brilliantly throughout is that Hannah doesn’t spoon-feed vital clues. The first minor revelation we are given is several chapters in to the book. The piece of back-story that has previously been withheld, is written so masterfully, so subtly as a throw away line in an other wise forgettable paragraph, you could almost miss it. Almost. Then, when you register the information you go back, re-read and think: ‘Really… Really?’
The only minor let down with this novel is the style in which we are given crucial details about Ruth’s past. Although Hannah does set up a credible reason why this information needs to be told in the form of a letter, it was one of two occasions when I felt slightly cheated and excluded; more so, perhaps, because elsewhere in the novel it was entirely the reverse.

By contrast the details in the letter appear overly dramatized. We read the facts, and they are shocking. However, it is a rare occasion where we are being ‘told’ of horrific details and not allowed to experience them for ourselves. If the information had been imparted through direct action, or we had witnessed the reaction of another character, these disturbing details may well have emotionally resonated, allowing us to feel.
Near the end of the novel, during another pivotal scene there is a summarization of events through the characters internal thoughts, and again, there is a slight sense of disappointment. That after five hundred pages or so we are not, in this scene, to receive the pay-off we both crave and deserve, that all important unveiling of the intricacies of plot through an active scene. That said; these are only minor complaints, which do not linger and are easily forgiven because The Other Half Lives is such a gripping book to read, and one, I will undoubtedly revisit in time.