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Monday, 26 April 2010

Reading A Series Backwards

It's an odd feeling when you buy a book, read it, then belatedly realise it's the latest in a series that's already several books deep.

I'm currently going through this. A few months ago, desperate for a change from Victorian novels, I browsed the crime section of Waterstones and spotted a name I recognised - Sophie Hannah. I'd previously known Hannah for her thought-provoking poetry and psychological short stories. I picked up the book with the most interesting title (The Other Half Lives), read the blurb and promptly bought it.

I loved it. So much so that I was first in line to buy Hannah's latest offering, A Room Swept White. Having realised by now that the police force in the novels is a recurring one I decided to buy the first in the series, Little Face, and see how I liked it.

As a psychological crime novel it was unparalleled. It's easy to see why the series continued successfully after that debut. One thing that stuck out at me as a writer, however, was how much more confident Hannah's characterisation felt after a few books in their skins. The series focuses on two police officers, Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. Neither are perfect by any means; that's clear from the off. Simon, particularly, fits the profile of the dysfunctional cop with a bit of a hero complex. The focus of each novel is the mysterious crime but the personal lives of Charlie and Simon are crucial on-going elements. It's an oft-repeated mantra in character-development that you only get to know your characters completely by walking every mile in their shoes, knowing how they'd react to particular circumstances. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with the characterisation in Little Face it feels like Hannah has really nailed it in the later books.

So does that mean every writer should write four or five novel-length pieces to get to know their character? God, I hope not! I think the point is just exploration from every angle. It's boring and, again, something of a mantra where writing teachers are concerned, but it works.

I've still got two Sophie Hannah books to read and I almost don't want to. Once I've read them I know I'll be hungry for more. I read with interest that the novels are being adapted for television. That's certainly something I'll be looking forward to. In the meantime, if anyone feels like jumping into Sophie Hannah - or any writer, for that matter - mid-stream I'd recommend it. For me, catching up is the best bit.

For more information on Sophie Hannah visit her website here

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