I was brought up on English crime novels featuring super-rational, often aristocratic detectives (a long line stretching from Sherlock Holmes through Peter Wimsey, Adam Dalgliesh, and Thomas Lynley) or else quiet, clever, less dashing types (Poirot, Wexford, the protagonists of most Scandinavian police procedurals). So it isn’t always easy for me to accept that these days, the fictional upholders of law and order may often be quite disorderly themselves --- angry, easily hurt, impulsive, neurotic --- especially when it comes to personal relations.
Such is the case with Sergeant Charlotte (Charlie) Zailer and Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse, the police in THE DEAD LIE DOWN. Introduced in Sophie Hannah’s three previous mysteries --- LITTLE FACE, HURTING DISTANCE and THE WRONG MOTHER --- Charlie and Simon are bright, insecure, and always pissing off those in authority --- in particular a chief inspector named Proust (who doesn’t care for madeleines or memories but who finds ways to punish these most intelligent and rebellious members of his force).
Proust’s name is sneakily apropos, since THE DEAD LIE DOWN concerns the remembrance of things past --- pain, humiliation, secrets --- by several characters, including the detectives themselves. As the book begins, we find Simon and Charlie confronted, separately, with the same strange confession: A fine-art framer named Aidan Seed tells Simon he has murdered a woman --- who, however, still seems to be alive. Aidan’s coworker and lover, Ruth Bussey, desperate to prove him innocent, relays the same story to Charlie. This case --- which doesn’t even seem to be a case, or at least not yet --- will prove a test for even the dynamic duo’s persistence and intellect.
Meanwhile, Charlie and Simon have become engaged (she wears a ring with “the world’s smallest diamond,” as she puts it to Simon in one of her typical loose-cannon moments), even though they have neither sworn their love nor had sex (actually, it’s not clear that Simon has ever had sex). Still, it’s clear they are two of a kind: haunted, obsessive, never toeing the line. “Most people were idiots, even those whose rank and years of experience might suggest otherwise” is a typical Simon observation --- no wonder he’s referred to by coworkers as “an arrogant turd.” As for Charlie, she becomes unhinged at the slightest reminder of the events of two years ago --- her unwitting romantic involvement with a psychopath --- that resulted in a demotion from Detective Sergeant to “just plain sergeant.”
Ruth and Aidan’s togetherness is similarly uneasy. Ruth, too, has violence in her past, and the couple’s mutual guilt and fear of rejection simultaneously binds them and drives them apart. And then there is the supposed victim, a gifted painter named Mary Trelease who refuses to sell or exhibit her canvases and who chooses to live in a slum even though her educated accent clearly points to a privileged background. Mary can be terrifyingly angry, weirdly seductive, maddeningly elusive. She seems to be the key to the conundrum of the crime-that-didn’t-happen. But how and why?
Charlie and Simon figure it out, but only by getting embroiled in a rather surreal, through-the-looking-glass world. In THE DEAD LIE DOWN, secrets lead to still more secrets, like a set of nested Russian dolls. Identities shift. The dead don’t stay dead. Nothing and no one is as it seems.
This play of appearances is underlined by the art-world background against which the story unfolds (for what is art but a representation, more or less distorted, of reality, even if that reality exists only in the painter’s mind?). Hannah takes a rather cynical view of the whole scene, but at the same time catches the passion of the committed painter (Mary) and genuine enthusiast and collector (Ruth). In an obvious reference to trendy artists like Damien Hirst, a gallery owner tells Ruth, “You and I are the taste-makers of the future….Once all the pickled baby skeletons and diamond-studded skulls and unmade beds have been seen for the shams they are, you and I will be there to lead the way. True art will once again reign supreme.”
My main caveat is that the book is so densely plotted that it is rather opaque at first. It took a while to get my bearings. I was at a disadvantage, this being my first Hannah novel, so the entire cast of characters was unfamiliar. (I’ve just begun LITTLE FACE, her first thriller --- brilliant ---- and it gives a much fuller sense of who Charlie and Simon are and how their relationship has evolved; Charlie, for example, was Simon’s boss before her demotion and had a major unrequited crush on him.) Still, I appreciate the sophistication of the concept, the complete absence of by-the-numbers plotting, the sharp dialogue, and especially the prickly wit and vulnerability of the two coppers, who grew on me more and more as the novel progressed.
A lot of loose ends are tied up as THE DEAD LIE DOWN concludes, but Charlie and Simon’s relationship remains oddly ambiguous. Clearly, Sophie Hanna can be relied on to avoid anything obvious or predictable --- a precious quality in a mystery writer. In any writer.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 29, 2010