I have a long history with Thomas H. Cook, having been introduced to him in 1996 via his Edgar-award wining novel, The Chatham School Affair. Wikipedia tells me that he has been nominated for an Edgar seven times, and I have no cause to doubt it. Sandrine’s Case, Cook’s most recent book, is a worthy nominee for the MWA Edgar award for Best Novel. It features that most challenging and frequently disappointing protagonist: the unreliable narrator.
That narrator is Samuel Madison, and the Sandrine in question is his wife. She was ill, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, shutting down in stages and dead by her own hand – or was she? The novel opens as the jury foreman is about to render a verdict in Sam’s trial for murdering her… and immediately skips backwards, to the first day of the trial, and then back further, to remember a conversation with his lawyer on the day he was arrested, and then further back, to the evidence that had been gathered against him. And while the type of crime novel feels a great deal like the innocent-man-falsely-accused, it also begins to feel like a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-he- actually-did-it! type of novel. AKA the psychological courtroom thriller.
Suspense builds throughout the book, primarily because Cook is such a skillful writer that many of the “clues” can be read in more than one way. The reader’s perspective on Sam’s guilt or innocence changes from chapter to chapter. On one hand, Sam is clearly a jerk. More than selfish, he’s totally self-involved. On the other hand, Sandrine had his measure, and loved him anyway. And their daughter, Alexandria, is loyal to her father.
The final twist comes when Sam realizes that with her death, Sandrine has recreated a painting they had seen together long ago, at a time when Sam was not yet jaded and cynical, but empathetic and soulful. (The painting Cook references is a real one, shown at right.) With her suicide, Sandrine sought to remind Sam of what he had been – and to return him to that better self. It was the final act of a desperate woman, undertaken out of love. Sam returns her self-sacrifice by refusing to offer this explanation in the courtroom, leaving his final judgment up to the jury.
In my opinion, Cook should have stopped there, but I know readers across the country would have let out a mighty cry of frustration. Indeed, he is found innocent, and an unsatisfying coda is added – the idea that Sam Madison would be so moved, so changed by his wife’s suicidal action, that he would change his life and spend the next 25 years teaching children in Africa. I found this final grand gesture to be unnecessary.
Overall, Sandrine’s Case has the advantage over The Humans in that it is clearly in the mystery/crime/suspense genre. It also has suspense, plotting, pacing, and characterization going for it. No surprise, it takes the lead.