Interview - Sophie Hannah: Writer's new life in the criminal underworld

Sophie Hannah was a late starter when it came to crime writing.

By the time she completed her first thriller, Little Face, she was already well-established as a poet, but when the book was published, some wondered why it had taken her so long.

"I've always loved reading crime and as a child I devoured Enid Blyton books and Agatha Christie," says Sophie, who has made her home in a sprawling 18th-century farmhouse in Keighley.

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"When I was 18 years old and on a gap year before university, I thought I'd have a go at writing my own. I finished two crime novels, but they were incredibly naive, pretty awful, in fact, and I decided that crime just wasn't something I was good at. Instead I began writing poetry and when that began to do really well, I thought, 'That's it, I've found my niche'."

Sophie's thoughts only returned to crime after the birth of her first child, when she had an idea which could only be written as a crime novel.

Little Face, a taut psychological thriller of a woman convinced her baby has been swapped for another child, sold 100,000 copies and laid to rest any idea the poet couldn't do crime.

Since then, she has written a book a year, and her fifth crime novel, A Room Swept White, has just been published.

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This time the mystery was inspired by the far-reaching and tragic consequences of cot-deaths and the women accused of smothering their children.

Inevitably, it will bring to mind the stories of Angela Cannings, the mother whose conviction for murdering her two baby sons was eventually overturned, and Sally Clark, freed by the Court of Appeal after also being imprisoned following the death of two of her children.

Both juries heard damning evidence from eminent paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow, who estimated the likelihood of two siblings dying of "cot death syndrome" were one-in-73 million. The cases, played out in the full glare of the media, polarised public opinion.

"Initially, these mothers were demonised and then, all of a sudden, it was doctors like Prof Meadows who were portrayed as the villains bent on sending innocent mothers to jail," says Sophie.

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"The truth of the cases remained the same, but they were buried in this incredible sea-change of public opinion. That was the starting point for the book, but the characters are not meant to represent any of these mothers in particular."

A Room Swept White should further cement Sophie's reputation in the world of crime writing.

In recent years, the genre, traditionally seen as inferior to literary fiction, has come into its own. However, Sophie likes to deal in facts and she remains wary of the hype which can surround crime writers and dismisses the idea that they are somehow more more down-to-earth than purveyors of high-brow fiction.

"There are some lovely crime writers, but there are also some who are deeply irritating and incredibly bitchy," she says.

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While Sophie's novels have largely been well received, when each new book is released there are some familiar complaints, not least that her plots are over-complicated and her characters' motivations unbelievable. Less, say some of the critics, is more.

"I read the reviews largely because I'm nosy, but I learnt fairly early on to disregard the very bad reviews and the very good ones," she says.

"One critic once wrote that my plots wouldn't be out of place in Scooby Doo, but I work on the basis that if something could happen just once, it's plausible. Look at the case of the canoe man, John Darwin. If someone had submitted his story as a synopsis for a novel, I suspect people would have said it was too far-fetched.

"If I read a bad review, I tend to think, 'Well, ok, but there are also some really good things you haven't mentioned', and if I see a really gushing review, I can't help but think, 'Oh, come on, there must

have been something you didn't like'.

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"I guess I have what you'd call a healthy disregard for critics."

Sophie may not be able to please all of the people all of the time, but with her previous four novels having sold half-a-million copies in this country alone and A Room Swept White also set to be a bestseller, she has shown that when it comes to writing, crime does pay.

Review: A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah

Gemma Roberts

Campaigner Helen Yardley, who has just been acquitted of killing her two babies, is shot dead at her London home.

The killer leaves a mysterious card with 16 numbers arranged in four rows of four on her body.

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Another woman accused of the same crime has also been attacked and it looks as though someone is taking justice into their own hands.

Meanwhile, television producer Fliss Benson – who is documenting the stories of the wrongly-accused mothers – receives a card and it appears that she may be the killer's next target.

In order to vindicate another mother and save herself, Fliss must uncover who is guilty and who is innocent before the killer strikes again.

The plot is complicated by the medical and legal aspects of the story and, at times, it leaves your head spinning with all the details, but Hannah's writing is first class.

A Room Swept White, by Sophie Hannah, is published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton. Priced 12.99. Out now.

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