This is my first Thomas H. Cook novel; it will not be my last since this is among the best mysteries I have ever read.
The narrator is Samuel Madison, an English literature professor, whose wife Sandrine dies from an overdose. Sam is arrested on suspicion of murder and his trial forms the structure of the narrative. As the trial proceeds and witnesses testify, Sam begins a journey of self-discovery as he relives his life, especially relationship with his wife. “I’d come to feel that my thinking was growing deeper and more curiously seeded with poignant memories. One thing was certain, thing that once mattered no longer did and in their vanishing they’d created more space in my mind. It was strange that by radically confining my life, Sandrine’s death, along with its dire consequences, had in some way expanded my consideration of it.”
Sam’s flashbacks reveal the disintegration of his marriage. We learn that “’the core reason [Sandrine’d] loved her husband [was] . . . His kindness. . . . His goodness. His capacity to feel sympathy.’” Lately, however, Sandrine had become increasingly withdrawn and angry and frustrated with Sam: “she moved away from me, moved away from my trumpeted opinions, my sharpened sensibilities, my resentment of all that struck me as puerile.” In fact, the evening of her death, she called him a sociopath.
The book is a psychological character study. Sam emerges as not a particularly likeable character. It is difficult to see the man with whom Sandrine fell in love, the young man who was “without bitterness, harboring no resentments, working on a novel . . . about ‘the tenderness of things’.” When the novel opens, Sam is an arrogant intellectual snob. He shows little emotion except contempt; he makes sarcastic, judgmental comments about the people of the town in which he lives and the students at the college where he teaches. At different points he is described as “aloof” and “soulless” and incapable of sympathy. Sam even admits that he seems to be missing something in his character, and this observation reminds us of a conversation he’d had with Sandrine in which she wondered if an essential element of character “’could be gotten back’” if it went missing.
As a former teacher of English literature, I loved the many literary references in the book. For instance, allusions to Robert Frost’s poetry are made: Sam describes the college president as “young, with miles to go before he slept” and his own life as being numbed because of “the road not taken”. Sam’s thoughts and speech are full of literary references appropriate to a pedantic English professor.
Interest never lags. There is the mystery: Did Sandrine commit suicide or did Sam kill her? There is also the interest in learning how/why Sam changed so much. The reader’s emotions are engaged as his/her feelings for Sam change: just as some sympathy is felt for him, some ugly thought or action of his is revealed.
I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy mysteries but who want more than just suspense. The flyleaf describes the novel as a “literary mystery” and it is indeed that – in every sense of the word.