Sandrine’s Case: The Mystery of Self

March 27th, 2014 by Steve Lehman · No Comments · Uncategorized

In Thomas H. Cook’s most recent novel, Sandrine’s Case (a Mysterious Press-HighBridge Audio, read by Brian Holsopple), Sandrine's Casethe first-person narrator, English literature Professor Samuel Madison, is on trial for his life for the premeditated murder of his wife Sandrine, also a professor at tiny Coburn College. Madison contends Sandrine’s death was suicide; the prosecution is certain it was a murder made to look like a suicide, and the circumstantial evidence for that case is impressive. Madison recounts each day of the trial while looking back over the events of his life, particularly his marriage, trying to figure out how it all came to this point.

Sandrine’s Case is thus a murder mystery, though the mystery isn’t who committed the crime but whether the untimely death was a crime at all. But there’s another, deeper mystery at the heart of the novel: who is Sam Madison, and what is the nature of his guilt or innocence? That’s the mystery Sam is trying to solve. As he puts it early on, “Regardless of the verdict, my trial had exposed everything, and from it, I’d learned that it is one thing to glance in a mirror, quite another to see what’s truly there.” Sandrine’s Case is about how we lose ourselves, about the subtle, barely noticeable steps by which our lives can take a wrong turn and set us on a path we didn’t intend to follow and weren’t even aware we were on. But while Sam was oblivious to those tiny events, Sandrine was not: she watched it happen to him a little at a time, saw the minute changes coalesce and harden into something unrecognizable, something she was unable to prevent through all her efforts, something that would lead to her death. Whether there could be a turning point, whether recognition and redemption were possible for Sam, was knowledge that she was, in the end, denied.

So Thomas Cook writes mysteries, or at least that’s the genre assigned to his books. As with Sandrine’s Case, they’re usually about crime or the possibility of crime, with plots that twist about a central unknown, and there’s invariably at least one death involved. I guess those particular features qualify his novels as mystery or crime fiction. Whatever. If you’re looking for the kind of genre fiction that follows well-travelled formulae of plot and character book after book, however, well, Tom Cook isn’t your guy. His settings and protagonists and supporting casts vary widely from story to story. What they always have in common, in addition to an accuracy of detail that comes from thorough research, are penetrating psychological investigations into the hearts and minds of his characters in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Cook writes about real people, not caricatures, and he does so with uncommon insight. His characters evolve, adapt to new information and external forces, act and react out of the amalgam of emotion, reason, instinct, and conditioning that comprise human motivation. In other words, he populates his novels with fully-realized personalities as unique and quirky as members of our species always are. There’s an underlying intelligence to his books, not just in wide-ranging references both literary and historical, which are never forced or ostentatious, but in a psychological acuity, precision of place, and deft, elegant prose. Of all these things, Sandrine’s Case is exhibit A. Small wonder it’s a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

I’d be remiss not to mention Brian Holsopple‘s terrific reading. Every sentence, every piece of dialogue, comes alive through his voice. Holsopple is a veteran, award-winning narrator who is clearly still at the top of his game.

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