In ‘The Next to Die,’ a Serial Killer Targets Pairs of Best Friends

The New York Times
By Sarah Lyall

For those of us who have long wondered what is going on in the unusual brain of the British thriller writer Sophie Hannah, her entertaining recent work of nonfiction, “How to Hold a Grudge,” is a perfect document. It explains, among other things, her relish for parsing human motivation down to the subatomic level and her characters’ tendency to respond to normal events with abnormal behavior that holds some internal logic for them (and for her, since she made it up) but seems wackadoodle to the rest of us.

Now all is clear. It makes sense that a woman who would devote several pages to the litany of emotions she felt about a seemingly innocuous incident involving a friend and his dog would also be the author of “The Next to Die,” the latest in a series featuring the chronically dysfunctional, always amusing Culver Valley police officers.

This time around, they are forced to participate in a regional task force with officers from other jurisdictions. They’re looking for a serial killer who has murdered two pairs of best friends after sending them homemade white books containing snippets of foreboding poetry. (Pay attention to the use of books and stories in this plot.)

It’s a weird case, but these are weird cops. They begin their discussions by debating whether the name they have awarded the killer for publicity purposes — Billy Dead Mates, a play on “Billy No Mates,” Brit-speak for a person with no friends — even makes sense. “He’s killing pairs of best friends, yes, but they’re friends with each other, not with him,” one of the officers says. “To call him Billy Dead Mates implies he’s killing his own friends. And we’ve no reason to think he is.”

The squabbling continues even as the officers band together in resentment against the ineffectual psychological profiler who has been foisted upon them and spar with Detective Inspector Giles Proust, the senior officer working the case. Proust’s nickname, the Snowman, refers to “the icy wasteland he had in place of a heart,” Hannah writes, and he exists for the purpose of raining invective upon his subordinates.

Who will be the next victim? Maybe Kim Tribbeck, a prickly stand-up comedian whose first-person narration forms parts of the novel. She has received one of the murderous books — hers says “Every bed is narrow,” a quote from Edna St. Vincent Millay — which makes her an obvious candidate. But, as Kim points out, she is not yet dead and has no friends at all, let alone a best friend whose murder could be paired with hers to conform to the killer’s established pattern.

Meanwhile, a magazine writer named Sondra Halliday, one of those people who always take a good argument too far, has been ranting online about how the killings are yet another example of the patriarchy’s complicity in violence against women. “Billy Dead Women,” she calls the killer, which is illogical, because one of the victims is a man. Her obsession with the case naturally makes her a suspect.

In “How to Hold a Grudge,” Hannah peppers discussions of the grudges of others with deconstructions of her own — grudges being negative experiences from the past “that you choose to remember in the present for valid, positive reasons,” she says — and of her forgive-but-do-not-forget philosophy. She is inclined to give her characters room to express their own irritations.

There is annoyance aplenty in “The Next to Die,” and it is strange but funny. Sgt. Charlie Zailer, for starters, is annoyed that her sister and her sister’s boyfriend may have “pretended to split up rather than actually split up,” so she does a little off-piste undercover work, spying on her sister on trains and in cafes.

Kim is annoyed at her ex-husband for smoking too much weed, and at her ex-boyfriend for being so clueless and uncommunicative. “How do most people resist the urge to flatten you with a meat hammer?” she muses, of the boyfriend. Proust is annoyed at the way Sondra spells her name. Sondra is annoyed at men in general.

Hannah is also a poet and the author of two extremely good Hercule Poirot mysteries, written with the approval of Agatha Christie’s estate, that pay homage to their source but bear Hannah’s trademark bite and off-the-wallness.

Longtime admirers of this author were excited to see her appear in a thrilling cameo role in a recent New Yorker article about the publisher and novelist Dan Mallory. Mallory, who was once Hannah’s editor and sort-of friend, is revealed in the piece to be a serial fabulist who fooled large swatches of the publishing industry by falsely claiming to have a fatal brain tumor, among other things. As Ian Parker points out in the piece, Hannah’s second Poirot book, “Closed Casket,” features a preposterous but charming Mallory-esque character whose own multitude of falsehoods includes the pretense that he is dying of kidney disease.

Hannah’s plots are like intricate jigsaw puzzles whose pieces you cannot believe will fit together, until you see the completed picture. Her denouements tend to make more sense in retrospect than at the time. The fun in reading “The Next to Die” — even when the scaffolding fails to fully support the structure — isn’t in learning whodunit, but in following the labyrinthine byways of its author’s peculiar worldview and the twisted motives of her characters.

“I should hope that nobody would read one of my books only to find out the answer,” says one of her characters — a novelist herself — in “Closed Casket.” “It’s the working out, and the psychology, that matters.”

Sophie Hannah
Fiction
The Next to Die