Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook

Mysterious Press, 2013
341 pp


"...scar tissue does not feel." 

Perhaps I shouldn't just automatically go lumping Sandrine's Case into the category of crime fiction. I suppose it could be labeled as "courtroom drama," as noted on a back-cover blurb, but in my head that brings to mind something à la John Grisham, which this book is most definitely not. No, this one is tough to pigeonhole, so I won't even try.  In this novel,  by one of my favorite writers, the reader doesn't even know if there has even been a crime, although the majority of the action takes place in a courtroom where the central character is on trial for his wife's murder.  It's a bit of a teaser -- throughout the story, it's impossible to come to any sort of conclusion about whether or not the main character is guilty; if you think, "yes, he did it," then there's something to lead you in the other direction; the same is true if you make up your mind that he's not guilty.  While this is a very clever strategy to keep the reader turning pages, it's really all about what the defendant in this case learns about himself along the way that is the big payoff -- and it's not pretty.  Not at all. 

Samuel Madison is a professor at Coburn, a small college in a town by the same name. He is a most odious person, filled with contempt for his job, the town, the "eternally mediocre students," and the people who live there.  He feels like he's in a vise, "tightening every day."  He's been writing the same book for years.  When he is arrested for the murder of his wife Sandrine, it becomes pretty obvious to him that the people of Coburn don't much like him either. While sitting in court surveying his jury, it also seems that these twelve people had a sense of hostility toward him, and that they despised him, because after all, wasn't it
"... windy professors as myself who'd poisoned their children with atheism or socialism or worse, who'd infused their previously unsullied minds with dreamy fantasies of changing the world or writing a great novel, while at the same time teaching them not one skill by which they might later find employment and thus avoid returning to their parents' homes to sit sullenly in front of the television, boiling with unrealizable hopes?"
He'd noticed "hostility" toward him by the people of Coburn  before Sandrine's death, but after the media frenzy surrounding the case and most especially Sandrine herself, he felt even more resented, to the point where he saw in the jurors' faces that along with the murder charge, the real reason he was on trial was for being "me."  He'd had an affair.  He'd picked up Sandrine's prescriptions for the Demerol that had caused her death. He'd been callous to the neighbors.  He'd argued with his wife.  His attitude doesn't help -- his attorney has to remind him to keep his snide comments to himself ("that's just the kind of smart-ass remark that can put a rope around your neck..." ) and to try to work on his cold-fish demeanor in front of the jury.  On their last night together, Sandrine had called him a sociopath; even his daughter has her doubts and is often surprised at the things he says over the course of the trial.  Slowly the testimony begins to reveal more about Sam than anyone knew -- except for Sandrine.

Sandrine's Case is very well written; even the title was well chosen.  The continuous "he's guilty"/"he's not guilty" dialogue running through my head kept the reading lively; when Mr. Cook throws in a new angle that causes Sam to be paranoid, it's so plausible that it adds another level to the ongoing question of his guilt or innocence, and another level of reader interest.  The novel is very much character driven, and the author has created a believable main character in Sam, a very unlikeable and "hollow" man who sneers at everyone and everything he feels worthy of his contempt. Structurally, the story is revealed day-by-day in court, through witness testimony and Sam's own thoughts while he is in his own head. The most viable person, however, is actually the deceased Sandrine -- the author reveals her personality most clearly throughout the novel, and the reader can't help but to be drawn to her.   There's very little not to like about this book, with the exception of the sort of sappy-toned page of an ending that I never expected.  I can see why Mr. Cook put this in, but my personal feeling is that it didn't belong and that the book might have been better without it. 

I loved the author's The Crime of Julian Wells, and while Sandrine's Case didn't have the same level of edginess as that one, Sandrine's Case is also a very good, intense read -- maybe  a bit light for fans of noir, a bit slow for readers who like a lot of action, and a bit on the heavy side for cozy readers. However, if you are at all into the literary side of crime writing, or if you're a reader who cares more for good writing than plot,  Sandrine's Case will most definitely not let you down. 

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