Under Siege: The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

They eavesdrop on Sam's phone calls in watchful silence. His world is theirs now; his fate is linked with theirs. As Sam paces, paces, paces, the hostages exchange words of comfort and whispered snippets of themselves...They're beginning to establish a community.

Ngaio Marsh Award finalist for Best Crime Novel, Charity Norman, recreates a harrowing hostage situation in her new book, The Secrets of Strangers. 

The Secrets of Strangers

Inside the Tuckbox, a London café close to the Underground, the owner has been shot. Seven adults and two children are trapped with the gunman. Three very worried dogs are abandoned outside.

It's a tense read: using the differing perspectives of a cast of customers, negotiators and the gunman himself, Charity Norman breathes life into a 3D model of the hostage experience. These characters aren't victims, they're real people, with their own complicated lives. What goes on behind the exterior we present in public?

Norman gives her characters enough of their own story to flesh them out without digressing from the immediate peril that is the main story.

Readers have an eye on the situation through those left inside; exploring the impact of being held hostage when the gunman holes up after the shooting. Readers are able to experience the siege through how they feel, and how they react.

Abi is a young lawyer trying desperately for a baby, caught on the way to the train while getting her morning coffee.

Mutesi, a grandmother, is at the café for the morning handover of her grandson Emmanuel from his mother Brigitte. Mutesi has a quiet strength to her. She has survived war and persecution in Rwanda, only to find the same terror in England. 

She sees the same resilience in these people. After hours of fear their collective lives are beginning to take on new rhythms.

Neil is an ex-teacher who has become homeless. He's ended up at the café due to Mutesi's kindness: a donation in his cup. His dog Buddy is outside along with the others; in immediate danger. The dogs parked outside pose a problem for firearms officers – a potential alarm bell sounding their approach – which could cause what they call a 'flashpoint' in the hostage business.

Paige, a pregnant woman with a toddler, has stopped in for a coffee on the way to take her elderly neighbour Arthur to the clinic for a check-up. Arthur, who survived the Blitz, likens their being in this situation to random chance, like his family avoiding the air raid shelters that collapsed one fateful night.

Rosie, the unaccounted-for waitress, has crammed herself into the cupboard under the sink.

Reading this story I was reminded of a real siege: the Lindt Café siege in Melbourne, which ended with police storming the café. 

The intensity and high stakes of crisis negotiation is a drug.

Norman examines police procedure through the eyes of police negotiator Eliza, married with two children, who is dedicated to her job, often at the expense of her family. 

That smile, those brown eyes. The man could be a film star. Sensitive, intelligent. Good teeth. And – on top of all that – the man can cook!

Robert is the charismatic café owner with a chequered past. He truly is a victim, lying in a pool of blood on the café floor. How could anyone have a reason to hurt such a friendly member of the community? Why did Sam shoot him? Was it random? If so, are the others in peril too? Or are the two connected? Is there a reason Sam has singled Robert out?

Unfolding the story as if in real time, Norman slowly reveals gunman Sam's secrets and the motivation for the shooting - portraying a young man who is more scared than his hostages. Norman firmly places the readers' sympathy with Sam. Will this change? As Abi says, 'we're your pawns for a platform'.

I loved the motif of the constant and annoying café phone ringtone; Elton John's 'Rocket Man'. Negotiator Eliza rings and rings, desperate to establish a rapport and avoid an armed response. Norman illustrates the tentative fragility of this connection: the difference between life and death. The regularity of communication to the outside world is reassuring to the hostages: it means they aren't alone. Neil asserts it may be comforting to Sam, too - his only way out sans death.

Sam's story paints a harrowing picture of Robert: of a man who insinuated himself into his mother's life - "You destroyed her!"

Sam claims that after the sudden death of his father, when he was only eight years old, Robert began disempowering his mother Harriet; running her affairs, making decisions about the family farm and shutting out family and friends: "...trying to get his feet under the table...", according to Harriet's best friend.

Sam took the two-faced Santa-Claus snarling devil-puppet down off his mantelpiece, put a sock over its head and shoved it into the back of his cupboard. And he named it Robert. Because it was Robert.

There is no love lost between Sam and this man, who was inappropriately close to his mother, even before the loss of her husband, Angus. Robert sees Sam as 'troubled'. Sam's granny says Robert is 'all teeth and smiles' -  like a crocodile. Is he really? Or is this just the perception of an over-protective family? Robert appears to be an all-around good guy, loved by women and men alike.

While Norman's text exposes Sam's motives for the shooting, the author also subtly explores the issues behind the facade of each and every character, illuminating the fact that stress and mental health issues are often lurking under the surface, in the daily lives of ordinary people.

While being held hostage is terrifying, being responsible for the lives of all involved could be the position with the most stress. Eliza is caught between a rock and a hard place (or 'the devil and the deep blue sea') as she juggles a SWAT team ready to storm the building and her tentative link with Sam. For the negotiation team the best result by far is for everyone to walk out of Tuckbox alive.

The worst result, as she waits by the cordon, would be to hear another gunshot, in stereo: over her phone, and from the scene. 

Strange things happen in hostage situations. Sam's hostages are tough - a lot tougher than him, but he's the one with the gun. When he finds his voice for the first time in his life, his hostages have no choice but to listen. As they do, their sympathies change. Is it Stockholm Syndrome? Or is Sam's version the truth? 

As the secrets of these strangers are revealed, the connections will shock you.

The Kindness of Strangers is a compelling read. I found myself worrying about the characters when I had to leave them. And I keep finding my mind drifting back to the bucolic peace to be found at Tyndale Farm.

This was my first introduction to Charity Norman's work. Not always writing thrillers, Norman's work focusses on the grey areas of human existence - the fact that people have both good and bad in us, affecting how we react to challenging situations. With a strong focus on characterisation, Norman examines the impact of her characters' actions on others; in particular the family unit. She also has a gift for language that, sparingly applied, has quite an impact:

I loved the angle and subject matter of this book. The Ngaio Marsh finalists this year have been markedly different. The Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be streamed online on 30 October. You can watch the awards on their Facebook page, or on Twitter (@NgaioMarshAward).

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