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'Sister,' An Elegantly Suspenseful Whodunit

Rosamund Lupton lives with her husband and two sons in London.
Rosamund Lupton lives with her husband and two sons in London.

The thing that makes fictional detectives — especially the hard-boiled British ones — so good at what they do is a healthy sense of detachment. Lovers and family members are too close to the case, so in swoops Detective Handsome to crack the code. These sleuths may have sordid, tangled personal lives of their own, but when it comes to solving mysteries, they do it with clean, unbiased expertise.

Bee Hemming, the detective in Rosamund Lupton's debut novel, Sister, is exactly the opposite of this archetype. For one thing, she's related to the murder victim. For another, Bee's personal life is decidedly not in shambles. Raised in London but living in New York, she is engaged to a sensible man and works a solid if quotidian 9 to 5 in marketing. Her life is lived in a waking sleep; that is, until the day that her mum calls to relate the news that her younger sister Tess, only 21 and seven months pregnant, is missing. Suddenly Bee's beige world jolts into color, and she is on the next plane to England to search for her wayward sister.

What she finds instead are bumbling British investigators and a hand-wringing mother with whom neither she nor Tess has ever been very close. The girls were a unit growing up, engaging in sweet sisterly activities — like passing secret notes written in lemon juice ("Ever since, kindness has smelled of lemons," Bee muses). When one falters, the other feels it. Bee senses instinctively that Tess is in peril — though she could not predict that her sister would be found dead in a grimy Hyde Park bathroom, wrists gashed open, no longer pregnant. As the details surrounding the death surface, investigators learn that Tess had, in fact, given birth in a hospital to a stillborn child; that she subsequently went raving mad and — they assume — committed suicide. Case closed.

But siblings just know things, and Bee knows with certainty that Tess could never kill herself. After the girls' younger brother Leo died at age 8 of cystic fibrosis, the family was so torn apart that their father fled to France. Tess would never allow herself to cause the same pain. As each new piece of information emerges, however, Bee begins to question the depth of her own connection to Tess. How well can you ever know someone, especially someone an ocean away?

Like any well-plotted thriller, Sister presents us early on with several possible culprits, from a rich young art student (who stalked classmate Tess under the guise of a school project) to a married painting tutor with whom Tess had an affair. Bee sees suspects everywhere, particular among the medical and science professionals who had determined, while Tess was in early pregnancy, that her child, like Leo, would be born with cystic fibrosis.

After establishing its absorbing premise, Sister becomes a pulse-quickening cocktail of science fiction and whodunit, with a splash of literary poetics and poignancy. Bee, herself only 26, is forced to take the reins of the case, a move that leads to life-threatening situations and a shocker that Lupton, a screenwriter by trade, has crafted to sock us in the gut.

Sister was such a hit in the U.K. that it has taken less than a year for it to make its way to the States; and Lupton's elegant phrasing translates beautifully. As Bee reflects on her relationship with her airy, bohemian sib, she remembers Tess saying to her, " 'Older sister' doesn't need to be a job title." But Bee feels, as so many big sisters do, that it is a job she is "ideally suited for." Sometimes, as Sister proves, the best detectives are the ones who do their work out of love.

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Rachel Syme
Rachel Syme is a frequent contributor to NPR Books. She is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast, and has written and edited for Elle, Radar, Page Six Magazine, Jane, theNew York Observer, The Millions, and GQ.