A regular weekday morning veers drastically off-course for five strangers whose paths cross in a London café – their lives never to be the same again when an apparently crazed gunman holds them hostage.
But there is more to the situation than first meets the eye and as the captives grapple with their own inner demons, the line between right and wrong starts to blur. Will the secrets they keep stop them from escaping with their lives?
Charity Norman is an auto-buy for me so I was really happy to see she had released a new book which I believe is her sixth. The Secrets of Strangers is fast-paced from the start and continually confounds your expectations as you progress through the novel. The book begins by highlighting a series of different characters and it isn’t immediately obvious how they are connected until you reach the part where they are all heading to Tuckbox, a local cafe they frequent. The characters are intriguing in their own way and each of them has secrets which are slowly revealed at different paces.
The characters all converge at the same time (except one) and end up being taken hostage when a young man has a row with the owner and ends up killing him with a rifle. As most of the customers flee in panic, three of our main protagonists are trapped there. Abi, a lawyer who is on her way to court to defend a young woman charged with abusing her baby, is preoccupied with the negative result she got from her latest pregnancy test and the fact she is hiding the news from her partner after their latest round of IVF. Neil, a homeless man who sleeps on a church bench, likes to spend his mornings at the Tuckbox where he can have a warm cup of tea and a newspaper to read. A compulsive gambler, Neil used to be a teacher until his habit got out of control and he lost his job as well as his family.
Mutesi, a care worker, has just finished her night shift and heads to the cafe to meet her daughter-in-law, Brigitte, and her grandson, Emmanuel, as is their habit before school starts. Born in Rwanda, Mutesi experienced the horrors of the country’s genocide so she isn’t abut to let a guy with a rifle scare her. Mutesi was definitely my favourite character and you really believed her when she sys everything will be okay. Brigitte and Emmanuel are eventually released but Mutesi stays to form the hostage trio with Abi and Neil. Mutesi remains secretive about her past until almost the end of the novel, however there are enough hints along the way for the reader to realise her story is a painful one. As the last one to open up, you know her revelations are going to come at a pivotal point in the story.
Abi, Neil and Mutesi are unusual hostages because once they get over their initial fear, they realise there is more going on with their captor than meets the eye. They slowly learn his name is Sam and he is the stepson of Robert, the Tuckbox owner, who he has just shot. Sam seems distraught by his actions and the others attempt to draw his story out of him. Once Sam begins to communicate, we are given his point of view and many chapters are dedicated to his experiences growing up with his parents on their farm. Sam’s life changes after the death of his father and his mother’s growing reliance on Robert who she eventually marries. Sam’s story is one of emotional cruelty and manipulation so it is hard to condemn him for what he had done in the end.
Our last protagonist is Eliza, a police negotiator, whose job it is to build a rapport with Sam and to eventually talk him down enough to defuse the situation. It takes a while for Sam to answer Eliza’s calls but when he eventually does answer the phone, Eliza has to use all her skills to keep him talking. While Eliza does a good job of getting under Sam’s skin, she is nowhere near as successful as the hostages who bond with Sam despite the circumstances. Although Eliza is more on the outside, she isn’t treated as just window dressing and is given her own back story so we understand she is a human being too. As well as negotiating with Sam, Eliza has to ensure her bosses don’t get too impatient and don’t endanger the hostages by acting too soon.
I tend to read Charity Norman’s books in one sitting (time allowing), mainly because they are so engrossing but I’m always sad when the book ends and I have to wait on another one being written.