HURTING DISTANCE, Sophie Hannah's second novel, is both of the same cut of cloth and fulfils the high standard set by her first, LITTLE FACE. Alternating chapters are narrated direct to the reader in the first person by Naomi Jenkins, who has a profession new to me in my long years of reading crime fiction about characters with strange jobs – she's a sundial designer. Naomi is having an affair with Robert Haworth, a married lorry driver. The couple meet at a motorway service station every Thursday, but Robert is an enigma – in love with Naomi but obsessively concerned about not pursuing the relationship outside the few hours of roadside passion that Naomi comes to crave.
The other part of the book is told from the point of view of Detective Sergeant Charlie Zalier and her team. Charlie encounters Naomi for the first time when Robert does not turn up for his weekly tryst and Naomi reports him missing. She is convinced that Robert's absence is sinister, probably connected with his promise to tell his wife, Juliet, about his affair. Naomi is too impatient for the police investigation to proceed at a measured pace because she is convinced Robert is in danger, so she accuses Robert of being the perpetrator of a particularly horrible rape she suffered several years ago to induce some urgency. If you can believe this premise, you'll be happy to be carried along for the rest of this cliffhanger of a book, as from this point on, the tension is increased exponentially, as all the characters seem to be involved somehow in the case.
What is the connection between Juliet and Naomi, and how does Juliet seem to know details about Naomi that nobody else could know? How does Naomi's irritating best friend and flatmate, Yvon, fit in? As the suspense increases, so is the reader's belief stretched somewhat – for example, why is a statement by a rape victim taken by just one male police officer; and why are two suspects allowed to confront each other after being taken into police custody just because one of them demands it? Nevertheless, the plot is cleverly convoluted, with Charlie's insecurities concerning her sister Olivia, and events following their failed holiday together, neatly fitting into the atmosphere of menace so simply yet strongly conveyed throughout the book.
Naomi's story, told confessional-style to the reader, is genuinely unnerving. The author is unflinching in her accounts of the abuses that Naomi has suffered, yet there is no gratuitous aspect to the descriptions. Naomi is both a victim by circumstance, yet refuses to behave as a victim. She starts out as a rather gullible yet unsympathetic and bossy woman, yet as she uncovers more and more truths, she gains the reader's admiration for her courage and tenacity in getting to the bottom of the creepy mystery of which she is part.
The police aspects of the book are slightly less successful. Charlie is prey to paralysing insecurities in her personal and professional relationships, and acts so downright stupidly as events come to a head, that it is hard to believe she is capable of being in charge of a group of detectives. Next book, if she appears, I hope she has got at least some aspects of her life sorted out. She's not an unsympathetic character, but I think she needs to demonstrate her positive professional abilities more in her next appearance (if she's to have one).
Despite its plot implausibilities, HURTING DISTANCE is a gripping tale. Even if you guess some of the twists in advance, you probably won't do so for all of them. And although there are physical thrills and spills, most of the punches delivered by this compelling book are of the more exciting kind that derive from the characters and their psychologies.