Review by Eve Ryan
The Narrow Bed is the 10th novel in Sophie Hannah’s Culver Valley series, following detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer through plots of suspense and murder. Known for her masterful dealing of the plot twist, Hannah has taken the risky road of implausibility in this latest psychological thriller. The clunky “Billy Dead Mates”, mocked by characters and readers alike, and the eye-rolling appearances of the little white book eventually leads to a neat and technically original conclusion, yet falls far short of inspired.
Despite an encouraging start, the novel loses momentum in the ‘omniscient detective’ chapters and suffers from the (slightly tedious) short story interruptions. Yet what The Narrow Bed lacks in grit and consistency it compensates for with black humour. By far the strongest element of the novel is not the murder revelation, as is typical of Hannah’s writing, but the comic, warm portrayal of protagonist Kim Tribbeck. Through honesty and wit, Kim’s refreshing characterisation displays great literary skill as Hannah convincingly pulls off the comedy memoir genre. A comparison with Sue Perkin’s recently published memoir, Spectacles, is strikingly appropriate; Hannah gets the tone and content of a great female stand-up spot on. Kim betrays frequent comic confessions, such as: “I’d like to die of Too Much Fun, if only to spite Drew. I don’t want to give the bastard any chance to feel sorry for me.” (p. 53) This complex and convincing character makes the alternate chapters that pose as extracts from Kim’s memoir Origami the most engaging, personal and page-turning segments of the novel.
Hannah’s weakness for controversial journalist characters, as in her previous novel The Telling Error, re-emerges through a debate on feminism in The Narrow Bed, as radical feminist Sondra Holliday is fiercely demonised. Easily more unlikeable than the actual murderer, Holliday’s articles on ‘Lifeworld Online’ are predictably excessive and theatrical. Hannah holds this ‘brand’ of militant man-hating feminism up to ridicule yet shies away from presenting a moderate, reasoned engagement with gendered concerns. Instead, we have Simon Waterhouse determined to find a female murderer to blast Holliday out of the water, Colin Sellers joining Weight Watchers for the cleavage and Charlie Zailer neglecting the real case due to her own obsessive domestic drama. Is this a post-gendered world? I think not.
Hannah is therefore an anomaly within contemporary female detective writers. As The Narrow Bed deconstructs the binary of male murderer and female victim she advocates moderate humanist thinking, gesturing towards gendered debates only to dismiss them as superfluous to her portrayal of crime and storytelling. Yet Gavin argues that feminist crime fiction deals predominantly with violence against women through a “gendered protest” in which “Women are victims: captured, raped, murdered, butchered and in the hands of forensic detectives dissected into evidence” (p. 268). Hannah strongly asserts this is not her literary realm or ambition, yet she does raise one flag for feminism: women are funny.
Engaging though it was for the most part, this does not appear to be Sophie Hannah’s finest work. Luckily The Narrow Bed’s disappointing and unsatisfying conclusion will not dwell long in the mind, unlike my desire to meet Kim Tribbeck.
Gavin, Adrienne E. “Feminist Crime Fiction and Female Sleuths”. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Ed. Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 258-269. Print.
Perkins, Sue. Spectacles: A Memoir. London: Michael Joseph/Penguin Books, 2015. Print.