The overall premise of Little Face, one of Sophie Hannah’s first novels to feature her now well-known characters, Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, is promising. New mother Alice Fancourt lets her daughter out of her sight for the first time in the three weeks since Florence’s birth. When she comes home two hours later, Alice is horror stricken to find the door ajar, her husband David napping, and Florence taken from her cot and replaced with another baby. Echoing the paranoia of the characters in Don Siegel’s Cold War science-fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Alice believes that her baby has been kidnapped and then replaced with another infant, identical to hers. David is sceptical and does not believe her, claiming that she is mad and suffering from a severe form of post-natal depression. Constable Simon Waterhouse comes in, attempting to slowly unravel the case.
Although it is refreshing to see a woman, especially a new mother, at the centre of a crime thriller and kidnapping mystery, Hannah tries perhaps to combine too many distinct elements into one book, creating a work that is at times both confusing and congested. In addition to the overly eccentric, stereotypical characters, such as Alice’s mother-in-law Vivienne, who is an obsessive control freak, there are simply too many other elements which do not come together in a satisfying way. The relationship between Waterhouse and his boss Charlie, who constantly tries to reveal her feelings to him, seems like a misplaced filler, as well as the slightly unrealistic situation when Simon shows clear signs of attraction to Alice after only a couple of meetings. This, plus the constant hints at David’s past and his ex-wife’s murder, all contribute to a plot that is quite hard to follow. The story begins at an exciting pace but eventually loses steam. The structure of the novel contributes to this loss of momentum, as the short chapters alternate between the first-person narrative voice depicting Alice’s stream of consciousness to Simon’s more traditional, factual pocket book which merely tell the story’s events in a bland fashion, and then eventually to an omniscient narrator.
One can argue that the conclusion and revelation of mystery is what the readers are frantically turning the pages for, but Hannah’s ending was quite disappointing. Without giving away the conclusion, the twist in the tale seems less of a solution and more of a problem associated with the narrator, which was a disappointment and not what was expected at all. What is more, echoing the incongruities of English golden-age detective fiction, Little Face seems content with its presentation of an overwhelming number of manic people all unrealistically inhabiting one small English town.