Saturday, 3 August 2013


Samuel Madison considered himself a lucky man to be married to Sandrine, beautiful, artistic, and a far more brilliant scholar than he was. That she gave up a prestigious career path to teach at a small Georgia college that would hire the two of them together, so he could work on his novel, merely confirmed his amazing good fortune, something far beyond what he'd ever expected or thought he'd deserved.

Years later, their daughter grown, and still at sleepy Coburn College, Madison comes home to find Sandrine dead, overdosed on Demerol, an apparent suicide. But few people believe Sandrine would take her own life. Madison, aloof and seemingly unemotional about her death, finds circumstantial evidence building up against him. Soon he is on trial for murder, which is where Thomas Cook's novel, told in flashbacks growing from the daily testimony in court, begins.

This is in many ways classic Thomas Cook country. Sam is a passive character, a watcher, failed in what was his one ambition, to write a novel, a reactor to Sandrine's glowing brilliance. It was she who proposed to him, in Albi, and the perceptive reader will feel the dynamic of the relationship, and its influence on the plot, before Sam himself does. Of course, being Cook, even glimpsing the realities behind the story doesn't cover the way it twists itself into the worst of all possible dilemmas for Sam.

The academic setting is downplayed, but will still remind many of Cook's best-known novel, The Chatham School Affair, though the only connection is the one I've noted in so many of Cook's books, the essentially academic, observer quality of his protagonists. Sam is one of the best of those, partly because of the skill with which Cook delineates the limits of his character, and partly because he allows Sandrine to do the same, more tellingly. The beauty of that is the way in which it forces a modicum of self-awareness on Sam—again, like many of Cook's protagonists, he is incredibly inward-focused, yet not deft in his self-analysis.

The result is unexpected, and the coda, while appropriate, may be somewhat too glib-- it is what is suggested by the story, but still it seems like something we should see at the beginning, rather than the end. That's a small matter, however. What resonates from this book like muted bells is the person of Sam Madison, a man whose flaws become exposed to both himself and the reader as we go along. They are recognisable, these character traits, and that is the sign of a expert novelist. Cook is a writer who makes us look into ourselves, and those we know, as well as his own characters. It is what gives his novels such moving intensity. 

Sandrine by Thomas H. Cook
Head of Zeus £16.99 ISBN 9781781855133

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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