My introduction to the crime novels of Thomas H. Cook came late in his career with The Crime of Julian Wells. For obsessive readers, it’s always exciting to ‘discover’ a writer who already has an impressive backlist, but before I could get to that backlist, here’s Thomas Cook back again a year later with another unusual crime novel. We’ve all seen films that fall into that ‘courtroom drama’ category, and the novel Sandrine’s Case takes place mainly in the courtroom–either through the scandalous murder trial that takes place, or in the mind of the man accused of murdering his wife as various witnesses give their testimony. Sandrine’s Case hits some buttons for me–this is a very cerebral crime novel, an unusual combination, so there’s no violence and a crime may or may not have been committed. Of course, there are crimes that break the law and for which people are caught and imprisoned, but there are other ‘crimes’ too–moral crimes, or moral transgressions if you will, frequently committed against those we supposedly love, and this are the two territories Cook explores in a parallel fashion during the murder trial.
The book opens on the first day of the murder trial of English and American Literature Professor Samuel Madison who is accused of murdering his wife, a “much -loved” professor of history, Sandrine Madison, and then staging her death to look like a suicide. While the court case determines whether or not Professor Samuel Madison murdered his wife, as the narrator, Samuel’s flashback memories provide us with a painful glimpse into their marriage. The court case, of course, provides a strict structure for the narrative, but in comparison, Samuel’s thoughts are in freefall. This juxtaposition allows us to see the barebones of the case and then moves us into the mind of the man accused of murder as he recalls the circumstances surrounding the testimonies given by various witnesses.
As the story unfolds, hints about Samuel’s guilt or innocence begin to appear. Did he or didn’t he murder his wife? With each subsequent witness, Samuel’s memories float to the surface effectively bringing Sandrine back to life, so that a portrait of the dead woman emerges. Through the course of the trial, Samuel begins to realize that he didn’t know his wife nearly as well as he thought he did. Sandrine was a complex woman deeply satisfied with her professional life while her husband Samuel is embittered by the fact that he never wrote the ‘great novel’ he intended to write, and neither did he have the stellar career he thought he deserved. Both Samuel and Sandrine taught at a small college in Georgia, and while Sandrine loved her job and, according to Sam showed “unaccountable devotion” to her students, to Sam, the students are all dull and “uninspiring,” not worth the slightest effort on his part. Sam’s arrogance extends to his colleagues:
I’d endlessly scoffed at my fellow professors. I always thought them a mediocre gaggle of academics waylaid in an inconsequential terminus at the end of the academic line.
Of course, if all your colleagues are “mediocre” twerps, what does that make you? One of the herd or vastly superior? Testimony from witnesses and Sam’s unfolding memories show how two people can view the same town, their friends and their neighbours through two entirely different lens. Sandrine loved her job, her students and her community, but for Sam, none of it was ever good enough. Sam isn’t a very nice man, and his arrogance does him no favours. As a narrator, he’s initially hard to peg and impossible to like. He spends part of the trial deriding the intelligence of the jury and the witnesses and also believes that he’ll be found guilty simply because he’s an intellectual and privileged. Sam finds it “odd” that 12 people, the very sort of people he’s made fun of now sit on the jury about to decide his fate.
In addition to the dreadful things I’d done to their children, the people of Coburn no doubt resented the fact that I’d done it while living a very privileged life, at least some of it paid for by the exorbitant tuition required to send their children to Coburn College. But this hostility had remained more or less mute before Sandrine’s death. After it, the media had gone on a feeding frenzy, the result of which was that by the first day of my trial I’d become a person much despised in this little town. To them, I was a man who had a great job, if you could even call it work, what with summers off and sabbaticals at full pay and holidays for every religion known to man. I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a free ticket to a carefree and semi luxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired–so the locals assumed–no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and to each other. A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lied high on the hog by … talking.
When Sam whines about how the rest of the world treats him, going on about how everyone thinking he’s elite and privileged and then bolsters that self-pity with himself vs the plebs and their worthless offspring, the very whining illustrates how Sam sees himself as privileged and ‘different.’ That snobbery works against him during the year-long investigation that led to the trial.
As the story weaves back and forth in time, the author infuses his story with regret and tenderness, and while an image evolves of Sandrine, a woman who loved life and lived it to the fullest, Samuel is clearly too bitterly detached to feel much of anything, but as the trial continues, revelations cause him to revise many of his opinions. The plot also explores the issue of protracted illness along with the accompanying fact that disease takes us on a lonely road. Empathy and love will lighten that solitary journey, but it’s a path that must inevitably be endured alone.
I really enjoyed the book’s structure, and even though I thought I knew where the story was taking me, I did not. Cook took some risks here in creating such an insufferable narrator–a self-focused man incapable of thinking about but himself, but since I always enjoy reading about nasty people, I thoroughly enjoyed Sam’s thoughts. The novel includes a postscript which took the story into sentimentality and rather ground home the point. IMO, the book would have been better without it. Apart from that flaw, Sandrine’s Case is a thoughtful novel which explores the idea of punishable crime which society holds us accountable for vs. the elusive culpability of the moral transgressions we have to live with.