Sandrine’s Case by Thomas Cook is one of six books nominated in the “Best Novel” category for the Mystery Writers’ of America Edgar Awards. I will review all six, rank them and according to my humble opinion, choose which one I think will be awarded the prestigious prize on May 1st. MWA has a plethora of books nominated in numerous other categories that you can check out at their website: www.mysterywriters.org

If nothing else, reading over the lists of nominees will offer scads of authors you may not know but will come to love once you dive into their backlists. Such is the case for me with Thomas Cook; the man has written many books, but even though I am a voracious reader of the mystery genre I had not heard of him until now. And I’m glad I did. Sandrine’s Caseoffers a rare take on the whodunnit approach to a murder mystery. The victim, Sandrine Madison, is the wife of the narrator, Samuel Madison. They both have been professors at Coburn College for the past 22 years, she in history and he in literature. The story opens with day one of Sam’s trial for Sandrine’s murder.

Sam is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He is the one who finds Sandrine dead, supposedly from an overdose of pain medication and after an earlier bitter fight between the two of them. His story is that Sandrine committed suicide because she didn’t want to suffer a drawn-out decline from her recent diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease. But he is secretly happy that she is dead because he didn’t want to have to care for her either. From the beginning Sam drops hints that he may have been the one to poison Sandrine; indeed, in the opening chapter he says: “I knew what I’d done, and how I’d done it, and by what means I had tried to get away with it.” So throughout the trial we are left to try to figure out if he killed her or she committed suicide.

For the first two-thirds of the novel we are treated to many, many flashbacks and memories that Sam has about his life with Sandrine. And although Cook handles this technique well, it gets old fast (and is my only objection to the story). However, we find out that in his youth Sam was a shy, plain guy who was approached and seduced by Sandrine, a beautiful woman clearly out of his league. But she tells him he’s “the one” because he teaches from the heart. They are happy for a while, have a daughter and settle in to life in a small college town. Early on the two of them had a passion for teaching and a dream that someday they would open a school in Africa. This dream stayed alive for Sandrine but not for Sam. Life becomes humdrum and Sam has an affair with another professor’s wife, the hapless April Blankenship. Their affair is short-lived and passionless and they break it off. Then Sandrine is diagnosed with ALS and dies, either by her own hand or Sam’s.

Sam has an epiphany about two-thirds through the novel and thinks that Sandrine did commit suicide but set it up so that he would look culpable because she found out about his affair. This seems like the answer to what happened. But the final third of the book reveals that Sandrine wanted nothing more than to be comforted by Sam because she was dying, she wanted a literal knight in shining armor. Instead, he left her alone to isolate with her books and Nano, thinking that was what she wanted.

Sam is acquitted in the trial because the evidence is circumstantial. But Sam has seen the error of his ways. He realizes it isn’t too late to recapture that passion he once had that had so attracted Sandrine and opens the school they had dreamt about. Cook’s theme that our life partners help us see the best and the worst in ourselves–including wanting to kill or at least wish the other person dead–is one of the great results of having a long-term relationship.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate this book a 7.

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