Last year I called Stuart Neville’s Those We Left Behind “a true hallmark of the genre,” and have spent the months since its release desperate to read his next. You know what it’s like when the shadow of an absolutely brilliant crime novel casts over subsequent books in your reading stack: oh, there’s stuff there you’ll enjoy, but nothing quite matches up to the quality of that effervescent goliath. So when an ARC of the second Serena Flanagan novel dropped in my lap, it was very much a case of drop everything and read! Expectations were high — hyperbolic, in fact — and I felt a slight twinge that I’d placed too much of a burden on Neville’s shoulders. I hadn’t, though. Like its predecessor, So Say the Fallen is a brilliant crime novel, and further underlines Stuart Neville’s credentials as one of the best contemporary crime writers.
When So Say the Fallen opens, DCI Serena Flanagan is still dealing with the fallout from her last major case, detailed in Those We Left Behind (which I won’t delve into here – this is a safe place, readers, free from spoilers). Suffice to say, her home life is suffering as a result, and the breakdown of her marriage seems imminent. The new case thrust into her hands doesn’t appear to have the same significance: a severely disabled local businessman has committed suicide, and Flanagan is called to the scene to sign off on the cause of death. The scene is clean, and all evidence points to suicide – but something about the businessman’s widow troubles Flanagan. So too the edginess of the reverend, with whom the widow is suspiciously close to. Despite the wishes of her superiors, Flanagan digs deeper, unravelling the tragedies that have plagued the widow’s life — and eventually the cold, dark truth.
Faith plays an integral role in So Say the Fallen —both the reverend’s, and Flanagan’s — and it’s a theme that is explored with incredible deftness. I’m always wary of being preached to when religion pops up in books, but nothing like that is evident here; it’s beautifully unobtrusive, and adds a new layer to Neville’s protagonist. At multiple points during this story, Flanagan finds herself questioning her path, and trying to fill a void in her life: faith in a higher power would go some way to restoring her. It’s not as cut-and-dried as that, of course – but I truly admire Neville’s willingness to dive into the subject.
In terms of narrative structure, So Say the Fallen isn’t so much a whodunit — we know the truth, or at least shades of it, very early on in the piece —but an extrapolation of motive. Indeed, motive is the driving force behind the novel, as Neville seeks to answer what inspires Flanagan to put her life on the line – and the sanctity of her family – every single day; why does the reverend continue to preach, given the dissipation of his own faith; why would a disabled businessman, who had apparently accepted his fate, suddenly decide to end his own life? This is less a novel of who, but rather, why. And it offers a nice change of pace from the archetypal mysteries clogging bookstore shelves.
So Say the Fallen is a damn fine novel, blending high personal stakes and character depth alongside traditional genre elements. Without question it will rank as one of the best crime novels I read this year. Anything that tops it will have to absolutely blow my socks off. It’s really that good.
[Don’t wanna take my word for it? Here’s another opinion!]
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 7-Jul-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom