Published by Mysterious Press
Publication date: August 6th 2013
In the early morning hours of November 15th a police officer is called to investigate a suicide in the small town of Coburn, Georgia. Sandrine Madison lies dead in her bed of an apparent drug overdose. There is no other trauma or indication of foul play but the officer gets a ‘feeling’ from the husband and that is how Samuel Madison comes to stand trial for the murder of his wife. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook follows Madison’s trial in small town Georgia where he is a college professor, part of what the rest of the community looks at as a group of elite intellectuals living outside their values. Madison doesn’t help his situation with his stand-offish manner and two facts that will come out at trial: his wife had recently been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and he had an affair in the year before her death. Either of these circumstances might point towards a woman who no longer wished to live but the local prosecutor unearths other details that, with Madison’s attitude, make him push for a murder trial.
It’s been a long time since I have read Thomas H. Cook but I still rate his novel Breakheart Hill as one of the best mysteries I have ever read. His ability to combine a unique premise with a beautiful use of language draws the reader into an almost hypnotic state. The words ensnare and weave the atmosphere of the plot, which in Sandrine’s Case is the slow, methodical pace of a small town trial and the pedantic, critical, icy mental machinations of a man who seems without emotion, despite just having lost his wife.
Cook plays with the reader, giving away no clues as to Madison’s innocence or guilt and even, at one point, introduces the notion that Sandrine hated her husband enough to have framed him for her own death. It is a premise that comes from Madison as the days pass and his mind wanders back to the early months of his marriage when he was an idealist filled with love. These memories provide a stark counterpoint to the cold violence of his final fight with Sandrine on the night of her death.
…as one after another of her accusations returned to me, all she’d first admired in me—the kindness, the simplicity, the sense of service—and all she had come to despise: My snideness, my superiority, my endless sense of grievance, the shabby gift, as she found opportunity to repeat, of my disillusion.
Despite the lack of bloody forensic details and salacious goings-on—any of the easy tricks used by other authors—Sandrine’s Case is a story that will hold the reader rapt. It is about death but also about life and love and marriage and what can happen as they all change. It is rare to find a murder mystery that is thoughtful and elegant but accomplishes just that. Rather than explode with drama, he writes of the deep, quiet reality of the human heart and the way it forgets, hardens, lets go…and what it takes to bring it back.
How classically Greek, I thought, to set a trap by which a man’s own flawed character would destroy him.