A Room Swept White, By Sophie Hannah

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

While Sophie Hannah's books are described as psychological thrillers, calling them psychological chillers would be just as appropriate. Hannah takes domestic scenarios, adds disquieting touches and turns up the suspense until you're checking under the bed for murders.

A Room Swept White sees TV producer Fliss Benson embarking on a documentary about cot death and three mothers – Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Ray Hines – wrongly convicted of killing their children. The programme is part of her boss Laurie Nattrass's crusade against child protection expert Dr Judith Duffy. Benson reluctantly agrees to the project: the money, her crush on Nattrass and, increasingly, her curiosity all play their part.

When Benson receives an anonymous note with 16 apparently random numbers, she discards it without much thought. Distractions are coming thick and fast. Hines suddenly opens up lines of communication with Benson, who finds she can't resist – or believe – this mercurial woman with a tragic past. Then Yardley is murdered, with a similar note in her pocket.

Readers of Hannah's previous books will recognise the police officers who investigate Yardley's murder – Giles Proust, Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. Hannah has given Waterhouse rather more backbone than in his previous outing, even if he and Zailer's engagement is still as dysfunctional as ever. But it's this dysfunction that makes Hannah's characters so human. They're plagued with doubt, embarrassment and regret, living flawed lives as best they can.

As Benson seemingly hovers on the edge of a nervous breakdown, she strengthens her grip on the programme and starts getting to the bottom of a murky moral mess. The shifting nature of truth, lies, loss and guilt runs though A Room Swept White. At the end, Hannah credits the stories of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel with helping her to write the book, and it's this real-life research that helps make it so convincing – and so unsettling.