"Can I really stop now," wonders Cara Burrows, a runaway English housewife holidaying at a New Age-y Arizona spa, "without knowing how the Melody Chapa story ends?" And there, in the margins, in my own sloppy black-pen scrawl: God, I wish I could.
Ars longa, vita brevis, said Hippocrates, more or less. As a constant reader and occasional reviewer of books, it's an aphorism I've tried to heed. Art is long, and life is short. Life's so short, in fact, that sullying oneself with sub-masterpiece literature feels wasteful, even vaguely offensive. Which is why, for better or worse, I've made very little room in my adult life for pulp novels, YA fiction, airport thrillers or other unserious literature that fuels flurries of activity on Goodreads forums and crowds bestseller lists.
I must sound a horrible snob. To which I can only say: So what? Surprising, then, that early in 2018, I found myself engrossed in a piece of New York Times-bestselling, sub-sub-masterpiece airport fiction.
Keep Her Safe, the latest from British mystery novelist Sophie Hannah, doesn't immediately impress. After a brief prologue, it opens with a glib line: "If I could turn and run, I would." It's no "queer, sultry summer" or "Mother died today" or "light of my life, fire of my loins." But it feels crudely efficient; deliberately calibrated to sucker the reader in.
Cara, Hannah's Hertford-mum-cum-vacationing-gumshoe, is running from her family. Specifically, her husband, Patrick, who's ambivalent to the prospect of having a third child – the child Cara is already carrying. "To most people," Cara thinks, "I could look like a woman setting off on the holiday of a lifetime, not one escaping from an unbearable situation." Out of the frying pan.
Upon check-in, Cara is directed to the wrong room, and happens across a teenage girl who Cara quickly learns may be Melody Chapa – a presumed-dead, JonBenét-ish victim, whose parents (the ludicrously named Annette and Naldo Chapa) have been jailed for the murder. Armed with an iPad Mini and an obliging mother/daughter sidekick pair (the just-as-ludicrously named Tarin and Zellie Fry), Cara digs into the case, very much despite herself.
Like many contemporary bestselling mystery-thrillers (Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl), Keep Her Safe offers a level of first-person immediacy. Instead of a master detective, a Holmes or an Hercule Poirot, Hannah's sleuthing protagonist is essentially playing private eye. And so instead of imagining themselves as clever detectives piecing together clues, readers are invited to imagine themselves as average, everyday-type people who happen upon a massive conspiracy. (It helps that hard-pressed housewife Cara Burrows is likely extra-recognizable to many of Hannah's imagined readers.) The book is packed with references to the legal drama Suits and other recognizable middle-class-isms. In one section, Cara even casts a chary eye on a young girl presumptuous enough to read Virginia Woolf poolside – a case of the text actively articulating the anti-snob bias a book such as this presumes.
Somewhere around the midpoint of Keep Her Safe, Cara becomes a little too embroiled in the mystery – a tangled conspiracy involving the spa, some nosy neighbours, a gas-bar jockey and a sniping TV host clearly modelled after Nancy Grace. As she draws herself deeper into the story of "America's most famous murder victim," Cara is abducted and wakes up in a nondescript trailer, where she must barter with a curiously obliging captor. And it's somewhere near this point that I feel as if I'm less a detective-by-proxy than a willful hostage.
Suddenly, I am no longer the wary, cynical reader slogging through a piece of tedious airport fiction, filling the margins with snide comments and withering asides. I am unself-consciously swept up in the mystery. I am reborn, like Patty Hearst in the Symbionese Liberation Army. My readerly wiles are dulled, my defences dropped. I am accommodating my thoughts to coincide with Sophie Hannah's. I am, despite myself, enjoying this.
Maybe. It's impossible to tell, really. Forcing one's way through a novel – even a brisk one with pages so highly turnable you'd think they were chemically treated with some space-age lubricant – stirs a strange kind of literary Stockholm syndrome. "It's in my interest to try to get into this," I tell myself. And so I grin as the plot contorts itself beyond credulity. Yet as the quotidian setup stretched into utter unbelievability, I only found myself more entertained. If a taut whodunit is paced like a precision Swiss watch, then Keep Her Safe is the cheap mall-kiosk knockoff, wound so tightly it explodes, in a bang of cogs, springs and other watch-y bits.
Granted, regular readers of these novels – who might reasonably expect precision and clean narrative payoffs – may leave Keep Her Safe feeling unsatisfied. But for a casual reader of such stuff, the book's volatile conspiracies and sheer improbable lunacy prove pleasantly surprising, suggesting that the most unassuming, unpretentious stories contain untold delights. Maybe a balanced cultural diet has room for such pleasing froth. Art may be impossibly long. But then, contra Hippocrates, so is life. Life is the longest thing there is. What could you possibly do that's longer?