Seldom has a book moved me to tears, but Sandrine’s Case did because of the beauty of its prose and its exquisite ending. Do NOT read the ending first!
Professor Sam Madison is on trial for the murder of his wife, Sandrine, who was found dead, naked, in their bed in a posed position. But did he murder his 46-year-old wife, who was also a professor at Coburn College in their small Southern town, or did she commit suicide?
While this book might be called a mystery, it is
actually more of a character study of Sam Madison. It is also the story of a marriage, an institution best understood by the participants and largely judged or misjudged by those on the ouside observing the marriage. This is especially true in the small town of Coburn. At one point his daughter, Alexandria, tries to define marriage. She says, “Maybe that’s why married people try so hard to make things work. It’s not that they love each other every day, right? It’s that they love each other enough to stay through the days they don’t.” The Madison’s marriage and their history are tightly wound around the outcome of Sam’s trial.
Through Sam’s thoughts and seamlessly perfect prose journeys back and forth in time, we learn the story of Sam and Sandrine’s marriage and their history together. Hardly dead in the true sense of that word,
Sandrine is a living presence in Sam’s mind and in the story. She was lovely, vivacious, brilliant, utterly dedicated to her students, and kind. So what had attracted her to Sam Madison, who is so cold that she calls him a sociopath shortly before her death? What are we to think when he begins to suspect that his dead wife has actually put into motion a plan that will frame him and lead to his own execution and his loss of their daughter’s love?
Each chapter of the novel is another day in the short murder trial of Sam Madison, a trial seen through his eyes. Despite Cook’s flawless prose, Madison is hardly a narrator we can like. Cold and cynical, he has always thought of himself as far superior to other Coburn inhabitants. As each neighbor, lover, or co-worker testifies, we actually hear his/her testimony from Sam’s point of view. Sam’s dark thoughts seem to lend credence to the theory of the police detective sworn to pin the murder on him. Cook creates suspense as only he can, and the reader is turning pages quickly to find out whether Sam will be found guilty.
As the trial plays out, the reader goes back and forth.
Did he do it? Did she do it? Who is guilty and who is innocent? How do their past and their marriage play such a significant role in the final outcome of the trial? In the end this beautiful novel is a story of redemption. I loved Thomas H. Cook’s The Chatham School Affair, but his lyrical prose, his flawless movement back and forth in time, his utterly surprising ending, and his masterful use of suspense put Sandrine’s Case at the top of my list.