The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Hostage situation…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Early one morning, a diverse bunch of people head for the Tuckbox café. Most of them are just looking for a caffeine fix, but one is carrying a loaded shotgun. Soon a man lies dead on the floor and some of the strangers find themselves as hostages of the killer. Outside, as the police scramble to get their armed response units in position, their negotiator, Eliza, begins the long job of trying to calm things down and resolve the situation without any more people getting hurt. And in the café, as the initial shock and terror wears off, the hostages and their captor begin to develop an uneasy rapport…

This book is getting rave reviews all over the place and, although I wasn’t as blown away by it as many other people, I can certainly see why. The quality of the writing is excellent, and the beginning in particular is brilliantly done, quickly building up an atmosphere of extreme tension and concern for the characters whom the author has already managed to make us care about.

After this explosive start, the book then settles down to a slow reveal of the background of each of the characters, especially of the killer and his victim. This is when it began, slightly, to drag for me. The essential problem is that all of the characters – yes, even the killer – are such awfully nice people who have been dealt unfair hands by fate. I liked them all, but oh, how I longed for someone’s stiff upper lip to fail – a touch of hysteria, a blazing row, or a dramatic but futile show of heroism. At the beginning, when there are kids among the hostages and we don’t know just how unstable the killer might be, the tension is palpable, but this disappears when it soon becomes clear that the immediate horrors are over and the hostage situation is merely an opportunity to bring together some disparate life stories.

Charity Norman

And mostly they’re, dare I say it, not very interesting stories. The career woman undergoing IVF and hiding her pain under a brittle veneer of professional distance. The homeless man, brought to this state by his own weaknesses but with a heart of gold and a limitless well of sympathy for others. The kind, motherly care worker who uses her common sense and knowledge of the darkness that can lurk in the human soul to connect with the killer. And the killer himself, product of an unhappy childhood ruled over by a controlling, gaslighting step-father. I may be making it sound much duller than it is – I did like all the characters and I did enjoy hearing their stories, especially the harrowing one of Mutesi the care worker which is very well done; but it was all too pat somehow. Here we all are, each with our own troubles, locked in this room, so why don’t we swap stories and all find some kind of redemption and turn this horror into a deeply meaningful moment of affirmation of life? It all felt a bit Harold Fry, if you know what I mean – another book that other people adored and I didn’t. And I do feel someone should have said no to the last chapter, which is quite frankly sickeningly saccharine and with the same kind of mystical twaddle that made me want to hurl Harold Fry at the wall.

Hmm, this review has turned out more critical than I intended. I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it quite highly, especially to people who enjoy feel-good novels, since despite the killing that’s what this is. But for those looking for realism or a thriller, this is not that book. Horses for courses. This horse provides a nice, comfortable, sedate ride, not a wild mane-flying gallop. Bill, not Shadowfax.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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39 thoughts on “The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

    • Yes, I’m sure that last chapter is why my review ended up so grumpy – up to that point I didn’t find it thrilling exactly, but I enjoyed it. But even this cake-and-chocolate-lover has limits when it comes to sweetness…!

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  1. It sounds as though the hostage situation was just a plot point to place all the characters in a particular place and time so that the author could tell the story she really wanted to: a tale about a whole load of essentially nice people who are victims of their surcomstances, society etc etc. Sometimes, I actually quite enjoy stories of this kind, but I need to be in a very specific mood, and it sounds as though this might become too sweet to be completely palatable. I guess i’ll put it on the maybe pile.

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    • Yes, that’s what it felt like – a device. The exciting beginning – and it’s very good – sets up expectations for a tense thriller, so it feels a bit disjointed when it settles into an almost cosy feel-good novel after that. The corpse on the floor felt pretty incongruous after a bit! I think that sickly sweet last chapter was probably what made my review a bit grumpy – up to that point, I may not have been finding it thrilling but I was enjoying the storytelling. But I have a pretty low tolerance for saccharine…

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan, even if there were some things lacking for you. I enjoy Norman’s work, and I agree with you that she does a solid slow reveal as well as some really well-done tension. You raise an interesting point, too, about what we want our characters to be like. None of us is really all good or all bad, and even though I do like a feel-good story, I think it has to be done especially well to feel realistic, if that makes sense.

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    • This is my first introduction to her and I’d certainly be keen to read more. It’s very well written, except that the thrilling beginning set up expectations so that when it morphed into more of a feel-good novel it felt disjointed – to me, anyway, although it’s getting rave reviews from most people! I felt it would have been improved by having at least one person in the café we could hate… haha!

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  3. Not for me, but I’m still chuckling over your review, FF. I know writers are advised to have some redeeming traits for all their characters, even the evil ones, but all that sugary sweetness is rather off-putting … to me, at least.

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    • Haha, I really hadn’t meant to be grumpy but sometimes it’s only when I start writing my review that my grievances rise to the surface! 😉 Yes, I don’t think characters ever work if they’re purely evil, but I also don’t think many people would be so nice all the time, especially when being held hostage…

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  4. Even though this sound pretty good and I would probably enjoy it, there are just too many other books out there clamoring for my attention right now. I’m glad it garnered “four smiles” for you. 🙂

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    • You may see other reviews of it that move it onto your wishlist – most people seem to have loved it. And despite my criticisms, I did enjoy it – I just felt it was a bit unbalanced the way it started out as a thriller and ended up as something else…

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    • Thank you! 🙂 Don’t let me put you off, though – most people seem to have loved it, and I did enjoy it – it just felt a bit unbalanced when it changed from being a thriller to suddenly being more of a feel-good novel…

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  5. This review reminds me a bit of Bel Canto – I went into that expecting a tense hostage situation story and ended up with a rather saccharine romance. It frustrates me when books purporting to be thrillers end up being something else entirely! Think I’ll give this one a miss, but I enjoyed your review 😊

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    • Yes, it’s the false expectations that caused the problem with this one for sure. The first bit was so tense and I settled in for a real thrill ride, only to be presented with a bunch of terribly decent people being terribly decent about everything… 😉

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    • Haha, I did love Bill but he wasn’t exactly exciting… 😉 Yes, I suspect if you didn’t like Harold Fry then this one might affect you in the same way, although I do think it’s better written.

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  6. Bill, not Shadowfax.😆 😅 😂😆 😅 😂😆 😅 😂😆 😅 😂
    You deserve a medal for that one.

    Like Jilanne, I also am curious about how the author helped the reader to care about these characters whose issues make them seem almost like stock characters. Yet in this book they rose above that somehow.

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    • Hahaha, thanks – glad you liked that! 😀

      Yes, it’s hard to know exactly what she did – a quick intro to each character, why they were heading for coffee at that moment, what was on their minds, and then bam! Everything disrupted. It was fairly standard stuff when you say it like that, but somehow she got it to be tense…

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