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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sandrine's Case by Thomas Cook

Mysterious Press, 352 pages, $24

If you have read any of Thomas Cook's other books, you know to distrust the narrators who tell their stories, because your initial impression will inevitably take a 180-degree turn before the book sees its final pages. Will Sandrine's Case follow this road? Professor Samuel Madison is narrating his tale while on trial for the murder of his wife. He admits his guilt, but whether it is guilt from murdering his wife or guilt over something else will slowly be revealed after a series of exquisite twists. However, it is hard to review a book that reveals itself so slowly, each chapter another peek into an aspect of the case or a veering away from what you thought you knew, without giving something away. So let me start by describing the structure instead.

The chapters are headed by the day of the trial or the day of rest or the witness who is testifying. Sam appears in real time with his grown-up daughter Alexandria, his defense attorney, Morty Salberg ("the smartest Jew lawyer in Coburn County"), and the state's attorney, Harold Singleton. Many of Sam's memories enhance the witnesses' testimony or conversations he has with others.

This is the first thing we learn: Sam is a supercilious little twit. Whether or not he is guilty of his wife's murder, he is certainly guilty of being "one cold fish." Morty says to him, "[I]t's pretty clear that the people in Coburn don't like you very much." And again, Sam becomes aware "quite clearly that I was charged, more than anything, with the crime of being me." His theory is that the regular folk don't like "eggheads" and think professors are subversively instructing impressionable youth. In return, he is dismissive and critical of his fellow teachers, his neighbors, and his daughter. We can only assume that he treated his wife the same way.

Besides being a disagreeable fellow, Sam also has a propensity to accidentally implicate himself with the authorities at every opportunity by confessing or admitting to things before he even is asked about them. It's hard not to shout, You killed her, or alternatively, Shut up! Morty and Alexandria warn him about making "pedantic literary allusions" or bringing up "elitist stuff." (Cook is kind enough not to make obscure literary allusions.)

The rest of this review deals with plot you may not wish to know. If you are stopping here, this is the bottom line: Read the book!

Sandrine and Sam were not always distant with each other. Just before her death Sandrine had brought up returning to Albi, "the little French town that had been the last stop on what she had always called our 'honeymoon trip.'" There are several references to that idyllic trip, the first time Sandrine and Sam realized they belonged together. Sandrine's desire is understandable. She has recently been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease and probably doesn't have much longer before she will die from it. At first it seems she has committed suicide rather than endure the slide into helplessness, but a lot of small things aren't "normal."

Officer Wendy Hill and Detective Ray Alabrandi collect incriminating indications that Sandrine did not commit suicide. The clues add up, the prosecuting attorney decides to charge Sam, and bam!, there's a trial. Morty keeps reassuring Sam that the case is weak. But with each new chapter, Cook winds another strand of rope around Sam's neck.

Cook has a patented way of bringing out the deep and vulnerable heart of a character. Several times Sam says that what Sandrine loved about him was his kindness and tenderness, qualities about which he no longer cares to show or is incapable of showing. Sandrine, on the other hand, was devoted to her teaching, was well-liked and admired, and still had that vulnerability. It is tenderness and kindness that mark Thomas Cook's novels and it is evident in the beautiful Sandrine's Case as well. 

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