Little Face, by Sophie Hannah

A missing-infant whodunit that chimes with very modern anxieties
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The Independent Culture

There are few places guaranteed to give post-partum mothers the heebie-jeebies more than the local health club. Sophie Hannah, a poet and novelist known for her irreverent take on modern neuroses, makes this the chilling backdrop to her debut crime novel, a noirish tale of missing babies and tender body-parts.

Alice, who has lost her parents in a car crash, marries David, an elegant divorced man. The couple move in with David's mother, a matriarch who cares for David's son from a previous marriage. David's ex-wife, we learn, was murdered, but the killer has long been caught.

After the birth of her own child, life at The Elms starts to close in on Alice. Leaving her baby, she visits the gym. She returns to find the door open, husband asleep and baby missing. Not that there isn't a baby in the crib; but the mewling infant doesn't appear to be her daughter, Florence.

Hannah's whodunit milks a classic formula with subversive results. David is convinced that the baby is his and Alice has gone mad. Gothic mother-in-law Vivienne keeps Alice dressed in a nightgown and away from the mobile phone.

Alongside Alice's account is the police investigation. In an emotion-driven narrative, Hannah struggles with procedural developments. The DNA test is too conveniently deferred, and a subplot involving underworld activities at the health club feels strained.

Happily, the personal lives of the constabulary are intrinsic to the plot. Simon, the detective constable, falls in love with Alice and is convinced of her sanity. His boss, a high-flying woman, is obsessed with him. Hannah shows herself a clued-up observer of the pathological dynamics of desire.

This missing-baby tale chimes with very modern anxieties. Custody issues lie at the heart of the resolution, and the increasingly perverse relationship between Alice and David is grounded in a recognisable reality that serves only to make our flesh crawl more.

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