Sophie Hannah is a name you’ve seen in “Murder Ink” before. She lives, writes and noodles along a variety of creative projects in Cambridge, England, and is one of my favorite, unglamorous young writers of long-form fiction. She’s also the author you can’t help but love for writing the self-help book How to Hold a Grudge.
Hannah’s new book, Perfect Little Children, would not have made it to my reading pile on the dust jacket alone. There are so many mysteries shoehorning their way into publication these last few years to satiate the seemingly unquenchable appetite for crime fiction that plot cribbing is clearly manifest. Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the quickly assembled sequels started an avalanche and have cleared the way for knockoffs and knockoffs of knockoffs. The serial-killer mysteries flooded the market until nobody could think of new ways to mutilate. Lost children have been twisted into variations of horror and reconfigured again and again. And houses shut for family vacations have been filled by strangers with imaginative legal maneuverings and left-behind murders.
I’ve grown weary of paint-by-number mysteries, and Perfect Little Children promised to be yet another child-centric tragedy. It wouldn’t have even been considered if it weren’t written by such a consummate writer as Hannah, who incidentally has been authorized by the estate of Agatha Christie to have her hand at a few Hercule Poirot novels.
So here’s the story: All Beth Leeson has to do is drive her son to his soccer game, hang around in the bleachers pretending to watch the melee, load the warrior back into the SUV and head home. Instead, she decides to drive by the new house of her ex-best friend, Flora, whom she hasn’t talked to in 12 years. The idea is to catch a glimpse of the house and, well, maybe get a peek at Flora and her children of the same age as her own. A crazy itch, a little illicit sleuthing, a ready excuse in the event she’s spotted.
Beth arrives and parks out of sight across the street as Flora and children Thomas and Emily are getting out of the car near the house. Flora appears older, as expected, but the children are the same age as she last saw them 12 years ago, and she hears Flora call their familiar names – “Thomas, Emily, into the house.” Is she crazy? This is a new house of twice the value and size of the old one, and in a new neighborhood. It must be a trick of the mind, not enough sleep, anxiety of middle age. It just isn’t possible that Flora’s children haven’t aged in 12 years.
So that’s the story with which this seeker of literary crime fiction is presented. I’m not interested in the supernatural or science fiction – notwithstanding many great books in those genres – so I’m not curious about any reason why or how Flora’s children hadn’t aged in 12 years. But I am interested in Hannah and cannot believe she’d ask her readers to suspend disbelief just to cash in on a reputation she’d be about to ruin. So I began reading. And you should also begin reading Perfect Little Children.
Hannah doesn’t permit Beth to give up or give in to having seen what her husband labels patently impossible. But Hannah is pursuing the ethical conundrum of when minding one’s own business turns into the psychological phenomenon called the “bystander effect,” where individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. A great unattributed quote sums up this edge-of-your-seat story: the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Give Perfect Little Children a try. Skip lunch downtown, ask Maria’s Bookshop for the “Murder Ink” 15 percent discount and go for an exciting ride.