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“I am thinking that the time will never come, for any of us, when the last question is answered. There will always be loose ends, threads dangling from all our lives.” —Little Face
Two-week-old Florence Fancourt has been kidnapped and replaced with another infant—or so claims her mother, Alice. Her father, David, insists that Alice is mistaken and the baby in their nursery is, indeed, Florence. Despite his protests, Alice calls in the police, who are unsure of what to think about her improbable story. Sergeant Charlotte “Charlie” Zailer thinks that Alice is “a mad bitch” (p. 32) suffering from postpartum depression and that she is wasting valuable police time. However, Detective Simon Waterhouse’s instincts tell him a mother should know her own child—shouldn’t she?
Simon is relatively new to the force, but the prickly loner—more interested in music and books than dating or socializing with his colleagues—has already won notoriety for both his successes and his temper. Not one to simply follow orders, he is determined to find out the truth no matter what. As Simon’s sergeant, Charlie recognizes his talents, but the two have a rocky relationship—complicated by a drunken tryst gone awry—and her objectivity is strained by Simon’s obvious attraction to Alice.
The Fancourts live at The Elms, a lavish estate just outside the small town of Spilling. Vivienne, David’s mother and the small clan’s indomitable matriarch, presides over a household that includes Alice, David, Florence, and Felix, David’s son from a previous marriage. Vivienne’s wealth buys them many privileges, but Simon senses all is not right within the Fancourt family.
Just three years ago, David’s ex-wife, Laura Cryer, was brutally murdered, and Simon wants to re-open the investigation, sensing that Florence’s “disappearance” might be somehow connected to the kidnapping. Normally, David would have been the prime suspect, but an ironclad alibi and overwhelming DNA evidence incriminating a well-known local drug addict and petty criminal made for an open-and-shut case. But Simon discovers that though David had moved on and become romantically involved with Alice before Laura’s death both David and Vivienne were furious with Laura for strictly monitoring the few visits she allowed them with Felix.
Unfortunately, Charlie handled the Cryer murder case, and is bothered by what she perceives as Simon’s dogged determination to vilify David and defend Alice. She convinces their commanding officer, Detective Inspector Proust, to refuse authorization on the DNA test that would confirm or deny Alice’s allegations. Vivienne steps in to have a private lab run the tests when, suddenly, Alice and the baby they’ve come to call Little Face disappear in the wintry night with nothing but the nightclothes they were wearing.
An award-winning poet, Sophie Hannah moves into crime fiction with an authority that marks her as a writer to watch. Her haunting debut novel is a deeply atmospheric and compulsively readable psychological thriller that pays homage to the genre’s greats yet boasts a compelling style all its own. Hannah masterfully ratchets the tension to a fever pitch as her offbeat detective team investigates a bizarre case that explodes into a mother’s worst nightmare.
Sophie Hannah is an international bestselling author of crime fiction and an award-winning poet. Little Face, her first psychological thriller to be published in the United States, was longlisted for the IMPAC Award and the 2007 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. She lives in West Yorkshire with her husband and two children.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I always loved writing as a child—it was only a hobby really. It was what I did when I was supposed to be doing other things. So I always knew I couldn’t ever live without processing life via writing, but I never for a minute imagined I could do it full time, for a living—make a real job out of it!
You began your writing career as a poet and published numerous acclaimed works before moving on to crime fiction. What inspired the change? Are there any other genres you plan to explore?
I happened to publish poetry first, but that’s really only because it took me so much longer to get my crime writing up to a reasonable standard. I have always been obsessed with mystery and suspense stories, ever since I discovered Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books, aged about five. I went straight on from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, and read every word both of them ever wrote. Then I became obsessed with Joy Fielding, and read every word she’d written, too. I was always determined to write crime/mystery fiction, and wrote a few quite immature and embarrassing (though I didn’t realize it at the time) crime novels before I finally hit on what I thought was a winning idea—the idea of a mother insisting that someone has stolen her baby and substituted another similar-looking baby in its place. By this time, I hoped I was mature enough to make the novel work, and another difference was that I did loads of research into hospital and police procedure this time, to make sure the book rang true. So, I suppose the answer is that I published poetry first only because it didn’t take me as long to learn how to write poetry, for some reason. I think I’m happy to stick to writing fiction and poetry—I can’t write drama at all, and I’ve tried several times, so I’m pretty sure I’m not destined to do that!
Are you attempting to address similar themes in your poetry and fiction?
My main interest, as a writer, is human behavior—the way people treat one another and the (often strange) workings of the human psyche. This is why I write psychological crime rather than, say, books about gun-running and drug smuggling. I’m not really interested in any crime story in which the crime is the equivalent of a job for the criminals (with the exception of The Wire, which is my favorite thing in the whole wide world). I tend to be much keener on stories in which the crime, whatever it happens to be, is a result of something in someone’s personal life—betrayal, jealousy, shame. My poetry is mainly about people and relationships, so in that sense is similar to my crime fiction, but a lot of my poetry is funny, which my crime novels aren’t. I mean, there are occasional jokes in my novels, but I like my psychological thrillers to be sinister and scary, so too much humor would, I fear, ruin the effect.
In many ways, England is the birthplace of detective fiction. How do you think British mysteries differ from those written in other countries?
Well . . . that’s a tricky one. I suppose the template for the traditional detective story is English: all the suspects gathered in the drawing room and the detective holding forth about whodunit and why, describing how each clue led him closer to discovering the truth. But then there are American and European writers whose books also follow that model. And if you take two of my favorite psychological thriller writers, Joy Fielding (North American) and Nicci French (British), their novels are very similar in terms of where they are in the crime genre: both write woman-in-peril relationship/emotional-based crime fiction. I think a lot of crime fiction readers like to read mystery novels set in a place that’s familiar to them—so England, if you’re English, or the United States if you’re American, because the more familiar the setting, the more terrifying it is when that reassuring scene is disrupted. But on the other hand, I know British crime novel fans who won’t read British murder mysteries, and much prefer ones from Scandinavia or the United States because it feels like more of an escape. What I think is great is that each country has its own traditions within the crime genre, and everybody learns and borrows from everybody else.
You yourself are the mother of two, yet the premise of Little Face is a terrifying possibility for any mother to even contemplate much less explore in vivid detail. Did the idea come to you when one of your children was a newborn?
Absolutely! I wrote Little Face shortly after my first child, Phoebe, was born. I was in hospital for four days trying to persuade her to come out, so when she finally emerged I was absolutely exhausted! The midwife offered to take her and look after her overnight so that I could get some rest—an offer I quickly agreed to, but then I found I couldn’t sleep, so I tiptoed out on to the dark, quiet, nighttime ward to get my daughter back. But when I tried to take the baby the midwife was holding, a baby who, like my daughter, was wrapped in a standard green hospital blanket, the midwife said, “What are you doing? That’s not your daughter!” She then pointed to a glass cot by her side that contained another baby, and of course I recognized Phoebe at once. But it started me thinking about how odd it is that you can be someone’s closest relative and yet not be entirely familiar with their face, that it’s possible to be uncertain, even for a few seconds, about whether a baby is or isn’t yours. If the midwife had handed me the wrong baby, the one I’d initially tried to take, I’d have been none the wiser. After four days in labor, in agony almost constantly (epidurals and pethidine didn’t work for me, I’m afraid!), I really didn’t know if I was coming or going—the hospital could have given me twins to take home and I’d probably have accepted it without question!
My husband Dan was due to come to the hospital the following morning to visit us both and I imagined myself saying to him, “This isn’t our baby! Our baby’s been swapped for another one!” Would he believe me? Would he assume that I, as the mother, knew better because of my maternal instincts, or would he trust his own impression that the baby in my room was our daughter? If he did, would he be angry with me? Would he think I was lying or that I’d gone mad? I knew instantly that this would make a compelling fictional scenario—a husband and wife who disagree about whether the baby in their house is theirs or not.
That gave me the opening scenario for Little Face, but at that point I had no idea how the mystery would be resolved. I couldn’t think of a reason for someone to swap one baby for another. Then, a few weeks after getting home from the hospital, some relatives were due to come and meet our baby for the first time. One was somebody my husband and I had a very difficult relationship with—a relationship that had almost totally broken down, in fact. As the visit approached, I found I couldn’t bear the idea of this person coming into contact with my daughter. Thinking of my baby-swap idea, I rang a friend from my ante-natal class whose daughter was almost exactly the same age as mine. “Can I borrow Hannah for the afternoon?” I asked, “and you can have Phoebe?” That way, I explained, this relative would believe she was meeting Phoebe, so family etiquette requirements would be satisfied, but I would know Phoebe would be safely tucked away at my friend’s house. Of course, my friend said no, alarmed by the madness of my plan! But I started to feel more pieces of my plot jigsaw falling into place, as I realized I’d come up with one possible reason why someone might swap one baby for another, and after that there was no stopping me! I thought of dozens of reasons why a person might substitute one baby for another—so many, in fact, that it was a wonder, I thought, that it wasn’t happening daily!
One might initially perceive Little Face as a woman’s mystery, yet its taut plotline has universal appeal. Who is your ideal reader?
From what I can tell based on my UK readership, it’s perhaps two thirds women to a third men who read my books. Women are drawn to my novels because they feature women in difficult and dangerous situations, and often they have to use their own wits to save themselves, with little or no help from anyone else. Each of my crime novels features a strong female lead. However, I also get a lot of e-mails from male readers, and they seem to like my books because of the plots. A lot of them are big crime fiction fans and they like the mystery/puzzle elements of my books—and some men even say they find my books really scary, which is great. I’ve always wanted to scare men! For me, plot is paramount. I love mystery novels in which the reader cannot even begin to work out what might have happened, what the explanation might be. I think these are much more interesting than novels in which you know from the start exactly what crime has been committed and it’s just a question of working out which of the suspect-motive-opportunity combinations is the correct one. If the reader is thinking, “What can possibly be going on here?” and have no clue how to begin to answer that question, and then the solution to the mystery is cleverly constructed and surprising, that’s the best possible kind of plot as far as I’m concerned. And I think this appreciation of the structural neatness of my work is what appeals to my male readers.
Is there any significance to the nickname Little Face?
I stole it shamelessly from real life—when my daughter was born, my husband called her “Little Face.” I said, “That’s good—I’m going to use that as the title for my novel.”
Alice and Simon are both fantastically unreliable narrators yet, if their narratives are dishonest, they contain lies of omission rather than outright red herrings. Was it difficult to tread such a fine line?
I wouldn’t say that Alice and Simon are unreliable, exactly. Or at least, if they are, they only are to the extent that most real people are. Both tend to avoid thinking/talking about things that are too difficult or painful to confront. I have heard from some readers of Little Face that they would have preferred a narrator who was completely sane and sorted and spoke the whole and objective truth all the time, but I don’t really know many people like that. I know far more people who give you their version or take on things, which is often highly misleading. I’m more interested in writing about slightly damaged people than I am in writing about plucky, uncomplicated good sorts battling away against the odds. That kind of person is too two-dimensional to make for good fiction.
Your story, The Octopus Nest, won first prize at the Daphne DuMaurier Festival Short Story Competition, and Little Face is evocative of DuMaurier’s Rebecca. It also has echoes of Otto Preminger’s Laura and even Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. What were the novel’s primary influences?
Hitchcock is a major influence on my work. I love his films and I think I kind of internalized them at a pretty young age, and I couldn’t possibly write thrillers without subconsciously doing it according to the Hitchcock model. Vertigo, in particular, is my favorite. I want the atmosphere in my books to be very similar to the atmosphere in Vertigo—emotionally taut suspense! Other influences are Joy Fielding, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, and Nicci French—and, of course, the great Daphne Du Maurier.
Detective Simon Waterhouse—with his fondness for The Smiths and Radio Four—certainly seems to be a new kind of detective hero. Yet his asexuality and somewhat stunted emotional development are also characteristics of classic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Who are your favorite fictional detectives, and who are the crime writers you’ve been most influenced by?
My favorite fictional detectives, in no particular order, are: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Inspector Morse (and Lewis), Inspector Wexford (and Mike Burden). I have also, at various stages in my life, been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. Oh!—and I’m an enormous fan of Lloyd and Hill, the detective duo invented by the late English writer Jill McGown. Her books are very much in the Agatha Christie mold, and she’s superb. My detective hero Simon Waterhouse is, I hope, a one off. I didn’t set out to create “a detective character,” because I thought that would lead to cliché; instead, I created a character I found appealing, fascinating, and occasionally infuriating, and then gave him the job of detective. It seemed like a much better way round to do it.
Can we expect to see more of Simon Waterhouse and/or Charlie Zailer?
Oh, yes—their story has only just started in Little Face, and will continue in future books. I never even had to think for two seconds about what their story would be—it was in my head, fully formed, from day one. And I like to think it’s entirely unpredictable—unpredictability is very important in crime fiction, I think, even in the personal lives of the characters. It’s the next most crucial thing, after grippingness, which is number one. A lot of readers write to me to say they’re desperate for the next book because they want to know what Simon and Charlie will do next.
- After her parents’ deaths, Alice removes herself from both London and her friends, deciding that, “the company of my friends, when I’d really needed them, had made me feel lonelier than any amount of solitude ever could” (p. 34). Have you ever had a similar experience? Explain what made you feel this way.
- How does Alice’s occupation as a homeopath inform the way she deals with the danger facing her and Florence? Are there any other instances in which homeopathy—curing a disorder by ingesting its root cause—could be seen as a metaphor for a character’s behavior?
- What is it that draws Alice and Simon to one another?
- How would you feel about living in your mother-in-law’s home? What do you feel the appropriate distance/relationship should be between a married couple and their parents?
- Imagine the novel’s proceedings from Felix’s perspective. Do you think he views Alice with the distaste she projects onto him? How might a young boy perceive such emotionally charged adult behavior?
- Why does Charlie give Simon the opportunity to “rewrite history” (p. 64) even though she suspects he has fallen for Alice?
- When Simon meets with Darryl Beer, the latter refuses to cooperate, telling the detective, “Next time you come here, make sure you know who Laura Cryer was, what she achieved” (p. 181). What kind of attachment has Beer developed to his alleged victim, and why does it prevent him from talking?
- Is it simply Vivienne’s wealth that allows her to become such a dangerous megalomaniac, or would she have behaved as selfishly regardless of her status?
- Of all the characters in Little Face, only Alice seems to have had nurturing parents and their deaths seem to have set her up as the perfect dupe for Vivienne’s domination. Do you believe that most parents exert a pernicious influence on their children?
- Neither Vivienne nor David has any sense of just how much cruelty the other is capable. In general, would you say that parents are accurate judges of their children’s character? Or children of their parents’?
- Why does Alice choose a disguise that looks so similar to Charlie’s appearance?
- At the end of the novel, David—though innocent—wants nothing to do with either Felix or Florence. Was his earlier devotion to his children genuine or simply a show he put on for Vivienne? Give examples to support your theory.
- How does Simon develop over the course of the novel? Will his revelations about Alice allow him to move past some of his emotional blocks?
- Why is Alice willing to sacrifice her marriage to David in order to escape?
- How does the novel’s denouement affect your opinion of Alice?