Thomas H. Cook is an author’s author. He has amassed an enviable bibliography comprised of books that prove his love of language and his ability to quietly and surgically slice into lives and personalities. While his novels are considered to fall under the classification of crime fiction, he defies some of the elements of that genre while never eschewing a literary tone. It is telling that after more than three decades and close to 30 books, Cook’s latest effort features some of his best prose.
SANDRINE’S CASE is built upon a relatively simple premise constructed with extremely complex layers. A husband calls the police, stating that he has just arrived at home and found his wife dead, the victim of an apparent suicide. After an investigation, though, the husband is charged with first-degree murder and goes on trial. Have we seen this before? Absolutely, but the plot contains several fascinating variations on this theme. The husband and wife in question are Sandrine and Samuel Madison, professors at a small and undistinguished college for over two decades. Sandrine is popular with the faculty and students and, indeed, with the townspeople of Coburn, a small and closely held city less than a hundred miles from Atlanta.
"SANDRINE’S CASE is loaded with quiet metaphor and shot through with turns of phrase that would fill a small notebook on their own. It can be read in one sitting, though you will be tempted to rush through it."
Samuel is not especially liked or likable; one gets this impression almost from the beginning of the book, which is narrated in the first person by Samuel himself. It is but one example of Cook’s quiet genius that the reader can get the sense almost immediately that Samuel was not always so unlikable, and indeed we eventually learn that such is the case as the story unfolds over 10 days. Samuel has a defense attorney who is self-styled as “the smartest Jew lawyer in Coburn County,” but seems to think that his own client might be guilty of the crime with which he is charged. Sandrine had reason to commit suicide, which interestingly enough is part of the alleged motive that Samuel supposedly had for murdering her.
As the book proceeds, one wonders what the deceased --- outgoing, intelligent, stunningly beautiful, capable of spouting obscure yet brilliant quotations while creating many of her own --- saw in her cold fish husband, whom she labelled a sociopath on the night of her death. We eventually learn exactly what it was that attracted Sandrine to Samuel, who looks down on practically everyone around him with a casual coldness that had invaded his home as well.
Still, Samuel is not without redeeming social value. One of his few acquaintances (“friend” would be too strong a word) is a next-door neighbor who owes much to Samuel, a debt that can never be truly repaid as a result of an impulsive, selfless, and yes, brave act that Samuel committed years before. And then there is Alexandria, Sandrine and Samuel’s daughter, who seems to have taken the best of her mother’s personality but is a step away from estrangement from her father. Such a thing perhaps would be more than he could bear, yet the danger of it arises from much more than the murder charges that have been brought against him; if he is exonerated, it still may not save him at home.
SANDRINE’S CASE is loaded with quiet metaphor and shot through with turns of phrase that would fill a small notebook on their own. It can be read in one sitting, though you will be tempted to rush through it. Still, I suggest reading it slowly, taking in its nuances and perhaps even re-reading it after finishing, just to enjoy how Cook so carefully constructed it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 9, 2013