A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah

>> Friday, November 26, 2010

TITLE: A Room Swept White
AUTHOR: Sophie Hannah

PAGES: 454
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery / Suspense
SERIES: Some recurring characters

REASON FOR READING: Sophie Hannah is one of my friend H's favourite authors, and she insisted I borrow some of her books.

TV producer Fliss Benson receives an anonymous card at work. The card has sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four - numbers that mean nothing to her

On the same day, Fliss finds out she's going to be working on a documentary about miscarriages of justice involving cot death mothers wrongly accused of murder. The documentary will focus on three women: Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Rachel Hind. All three women are now free, and the doctor who did her best to send them to prison for life, child protection zealot Dr Judith Duffy, is under investigation for misconduct.

For reasons she has shared with nobody, this is the last project Fliss wants to be working on. And then Helen Yardley is found dead at her home, and in her pocket is a card with sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four...
The summary above is spot-on and there's no point reinventing the wheel, so I'll skip the plot description if you don't mind.

A Room Swept White started out very strong. It's a very puzzling mystery. For starters, who would want to kill Helen Yardley? The only person who might have a grudge against has a solid alibi, and event soon make it clear they couldn't have been the culprit. And what is it with the mysterious card with the 16 numbers? That would suggest some sort of serial killer, but evidence suggests Helen knew her murderer. It's all very intriguing, and I couldn't wait to find out just what on earth was going on.

Hannah managed to keep up this level of interest on my part throughout the entire story (and it's quite a brick of a book, too). The more things happened, the more puzzled I was, and the more I wanted to know how Hannah was going to link it all together and make it make sense. Unfortunately, the resolution wasn't as great as I would have hoped for. It wasn't that it left things unexplained or was completely unbelievable, but it lacked that "ahhh, so that was it!" that makes a mystery resolution satisfying. As it was, I was more like "really?".

ARSW is a bit unusual in that it's sort of part of a series, with two detectives who are recurring characters (they are also a couple), and yet, they weren't really the main characters. They're definitely important characters (Simon Waterhouse more than Charlie Zailer), but for a long time I didn't guess they were supposed to be any more important than any others. It was only when I got a couple too many references to past events that I had a look online and realised they had been part of Hannah's previous books. I'm planning to read some of those earlier books (my friend did give me quite a few), but it would have been nice to have been given a teeny bit more background on things like why Simon refuses to have sex with Charlie, or how exactly Charlie was so disgraced that she had to quit the force.

The person I would really consider the protagonist of this book was Fliss Benson, the young woman working on the documentary on cot deaths, who also receives the card with the 16 numbers on it. She was a character I found quite frustrating, as (possibly to move the plot in the direction the author needs it to go) she sometimes behaves very, very stupidly. I mean, you receive a photograph which you realise might be from the murderer. It doesn't implicate you in anything or reflect negatively on you at all? It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that this is important information that the police really should have. So what sort of person would destroy the card and refuse to tell anyone about it? IMO, either a monumentally selfish or monumentally stupid one. Or both, which is what Fliss was, really. Very frustrating.

Reading back what I've written so far, this doesn't sounds like a good book at all. That's not quite right, even with all the problems I've described, there are some very good things about it, too. I quite liked the pulled-from-the-headlines feel of the plot. The characters are all quite vivid and interesting. Hannah very skilfully made me change my mind again and again about the original cot deaths -what seemed very clear at the beginning slowly became a lot grayer and muddier as the book progressed. And finally, the police work was quite satisfying to read, especially the way Simon found what he needed from the little boy -those were some of my favourite sections.



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