‘Cot death’ at core of psychological thriller

2010-07-14 00:00


A Room Swept White

Sophie Hannah

Hodder & Stoughton

TV producer Fliss Benson hears that she’s to take over a documentary about miscarriages of justice involving cot-death mothers wrongly accused of murder. The programme is to focus on three women, Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Rachel Hines, all now free, having been convicted on the suspect testimony of child protection zealot Dr Judith Duffy, currently under investigation for misconduct.

Is Fliss jubilant? Well, no. Apart from the fact that the subject matter evokes upsetting memories from her own past, she’s inheriting the job from Laurie Nattrass, a high-flier for whom she has an unrequited passion, and who is leaving for greener pastures. So she’s too distracted to pay much attention to the anonymous card she receives at work — a card bearing 16 numbers arranged in four rows of four. And then Helen Yardley is found dead at her home, with a similar card in her pocket.

If you read the book fast, as I did first time round, it seems interesting. Cot death or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is not uncommon. In some cases the cause can be identified: an undetected heart defect, an adverse reaction to medication, or an inherited susceptibility of some kind. On occasion it is shown that the death is the result of abuse or neglect, or of an accident caused by a parent or child-minder. The idea of using the phenomenon as the basis for a ­psychological thriller is a good one.

A second, more thoughtful reading brought irritation, however. In her obsessional covering of all bases ­Sophie Hannah packs the book too densely with this cause of death and that, so that the reader becomes horribly confused, not just by all the deaths, but by all the adult oddities. And the author does Fliss, with whom we should be able to identify as she strives to find the truth, a deep disservice. Instead of coming across as a tough but humane investigative journalist, she’s presented more as a hormone-crazed 13-year-old, stupidly, gibberingly, besotted with the odious Nattrass. The rather sudden neat ending seems more a product of authorial desperation than of clever plotting. Very disappointing.

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