The Couple at the Table by Sophie Hannah

Originally published in 2022

Jane and William are enjoying their honeymoon at an exclusive couples-only resort…

…until Jane receives a chilling note warning her to “Beware of the couple at the table nearest to yours.” At dinner that night, five other couples are present, and none of their tables is any nearer or farther away than any of the others. It’s almost as if someone has set the scene in order to make the warning note meaningless—but why would anyone do that?

Jane has no idea.

But someone in this dining room will be dead before breakfast, and all the evidence will suggest that no one there that night could have possibly committed the crime.

Shortly before her murder, newlywed Jane received an anonymous note warning her to be wary of the couple seated at ‘the table nearest to yours’. This note caused her to become highly agitated and suspicious of each of the other guests staying at the upscale Tevendon Estate Resort, a set of holiday cottages on her father’s estate. A big part of the reason for this is the wording of the note; Jane’s table had been moved to be the center of a circle, each other table equally distant from their own.

The Couple at the Table initially caught my attention because of the puzzle related to this anonymous note. I find ambiguities in language, whether deliberate or accidental, to be interesting and the example Sophie Hannah crafts for this story is quite intriguing. Is the wording of a note of warning deliberately unhelpful, intended to agitate its reader, or has someone reacted to nullify its meaning?

The novel begins some months after Jane’s murder – a brutal stabbing committed in their holiday cottage later that day. The problem for the police is that almost all of the suspects were dining together at the time of the murder and give each other alibis. Meanwhile the one suspect who has no alibi, her new husband William, has one piece of forensic evidence that seems to prove his innocence. The investigation seems hopelessly stalled until one suspect, William’s ex-wife, decides to try to provoke a reaction on the part of the killer.

The novel proceeds to weave backwards and forwards in time, mixing first person narration from Lucy, William’s ex-wife, with third person accounts of the past. I found this mix of styles and points in time to be ultimately quite frustrating. While executed well enough on a technical level to avoid being overly confusing, I felt it did not contribute much to the experience of the novel overall. The only reason I could think to employ it was to try to make us empathize more with Lucy’s situation or to place more credibility in her narrative, yet I did not think that either was necessary. I would have found it more interesting to either play with multiple perspectives and let us hear different characters’ voices or to stick to the third person throughout.

Of all the characters in the story, Lucy comes across as the most complex, in part because of her backstory which naturally engenders some sympathy. I was interested to see precisely how her split from William had come about and to better understand some of the choices she had made both at the resort and in the months that followed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that Lucy has somewhat complicated feelings about the murder as demonstrated by the letter to the murderer that opens the novel. As a suspect herself, she wants a line drawn under the killing to enable her to move forward with her life yet she is also grateful to a killer who may have taken vengeance for her. The challenge she has in navigating those feelings was the most interesting and successful aspect of the novel for me.

In contrast, we barely get to know many of the other people staying at Tevendon beyond the victim. Courtesy of the flashbacks, we do get to know Jane a little but mostly from the hours leading up to her death where she is agitated and showing signs of paranoia. I never felt that I understood what she had seen in William, nor did I really understand her choices more generally as a character, leaving me feeling somewhat flat with regards her in ways I never felt with Linnet Ridgeway in Death on the Nile.

Most of the other guests are unmemorable, both in terms of their backstories or their involvement in the action of this story. Given that they are absent from the present day material until close to the end of the novel, I found it hard to have any strong feelings or thoughts about any of them. This was not only a challenge in terms of considering those characters as suspects, it was disappointing from the perspective of justifying some of the revelations made towards the end of the book. Given where this story will ultimately head, I think the reader needs to have a strong sense of what motivates some of these characters to really buy into the explanation we will be given.

Which brings me to the book’s solution…

All the way through the book I had a concern that we were headed for a twist ending I had seen done before. Happily the author doesn’t go there but unfortunately I did not find the actual explanation that is delivered to be a satisfying one. That partly reflects that the killer’s identity, while not the one I feared, is not a surprise either. But it also reflects that to get there we must accept a clue that I just don’t think works as described and a pretty flimsy motivation for murder.

On the latter, I’d say that is not necessarily a surprise as few in the cast of suspects have anything approaching a solid reason to want Lucy dead. This is not the case of a novelist ignoring some great suspect in favor of a weak ‘surprise’ one but rather never putting in enough detail to completely sell the idea they have as being enough to get that character to that point.

It’s harder to talk about the clue I struggled with, in part because to describe it well enough for readers to identify it means explaining it, which is obviously not desirable. Instead of being specific, I’ll generalize and say that it is a clue related to a matter of language. I have thought about it a lot since reading this, talking it over with friends who have also read the book, and I just don’t get where the book expects me to be. It’s not exactly devastating to the case, but I found it a little silly not so much in its conception but in the explanation given. That is unfortunate because the rest of the solution relies on elements of coincidence and characters behaving in unusual ways so it doesn’t do much to help with selling the credibility of the ending, at least for me.

Unfortunately while I was intrigued by the initial scenario, I found it hard to overlook my issues with the book’s solution. It’s possible that others may find aspects of the solution more credible than I did or be more satisfied by the reveal of the killer but I struggled to invest in the solution and came away underwhelmed.

What I did appreciate though was the character of Lucy. I felt the author walked a rather challenging path with this character, giving her some interesting, harder edges. She is easy to sympathize with while being quite hard to like. I appreciated the complexities here and was interested to see her try to work through her feelings about the murder. I just wished that the other characters challenged me in that same way.

The Verdict: This book offers a promising scenario but, sadly, I found the solution to be disappointing in terms of some of the character motivations. I was impressed enough with the character of Lucy however to be interested to try some other works by the author if anyone has any suggestions!

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? As this book is a recent publication, there is a chance you may find it on the bookshelves at a bookstore. If not, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780063257702.

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