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'The Cradle in the Grave' has flat characters, unrealistic situations, artificial resolutions
"The Cradle in the Grave" (Penguin), by Sophie Hannah: There is no denying that Sophie Hannah is a gifted storyteller. Her sharp, smart prose is refreshingly crisp, an unadorned narrative that complements her often far-left-of-center plots and characters.
The premise of her latest novel, "The Cradle in the Grave," involves three mothers accused of murdering their infant children. They are now the subject of a documentary produced by an egomaniacal man bent on destroying the career of the medical expert who gave testimony at each woman's trial that led to their conviction.
The producer's assistant, Fliss Benson, receives a mysterious card with 16 numbers on it just as she learns she's about to take over the film's production. And then one of the mothers is murdered, and on her body is a card with the same 16 numbers on it.
Throw into the mix Simon Waterhouse, Charlie Zailer and Detective Inspector Proust ' characters from Hannah's other crime thrillers ' and it's already almost too much to keep track of. Anyone unfamiliar with these characters is bound to feel unmoored, as Hannah seems to be relying on readers' knowledge of previous books rather than pushing their development. Proust continues to be cartoonishly boorish, and the animosity Waterhouse bears toward him is one of the more stale aspects of this novel.
Fliss, from whose perspective half the book is told, is too whiny to be a sympathetic character, and bears a secret that she repeatedly mentions only to flit away from divulging it. It feels like this was an attempt to add depth to a character who lacks it otherwise, and it fails ' the secret is finally revealed far past the point of caring, and it's not nearly as dark or deep ' or even technically a secret ' as her reluctance to mention it implied.
The pieces of the mystery come together in a way that defies logic and requires implausible leaps of intuition to solve. This is very much a book in which characters serve the plot, but there's nothing evident to suggest that they possess the mental agility and quickness to start from point A, leap over points B and C, and arrive at D.
I've enjoyed Hannah's other Waterhouse-Zailer novels, though I was always aware that I was reading them somewhat compulsively, as though I couldn't help it. I could overlook the sometimes inexplicable plot twists because her writing was so strong and she was uncannily able to plumb the darkest corners of human psychology. This time, however, it's not enough, and her talent is wasted on flat characters and unrealistic situations with artificial resolutions.