The social media hills are alive with the sound of people discussing USA Network’s adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner, leading a lot of folks to wonder how executive producer and star Jessica Biel knew this twisty, tension factory of a story would be a massive hit. We know Biel’s secret: she read the book, which is—you guessed it—a twisty, tension factory of a story with a surprise ending you’ll never see coming. While the world might be surprised The Sinner is a fantastic bit of television, we’re not—because we read the book, too. Here’s why we knew The Sinner was going to be a hot topic of conversation this summer.
First and foremost, The Sinner is one of those “elevator-pitch” novels that can be summarized in a few words without giving a single plot twist away. Cora Tannetti (Cora Bender in the book) is with her family on a public beach for a picnic when she abruptly picks up a knife and murders a stranger. There are dozens of witnesses, and Cora doesn’t make any attempt to run or deny what she’s done. When questioned, she simply states that she doesn’t know why she murdered him. A detective, Harry Ambrose (Rudolf Grovian in the novel), thinks there’s more to the story than temporary insanity, and he starts pushing Cora in the interrogation room. That kind of brutal, inexplicable crime and Cora’s numb lack of affect afterwards tell the viewer (and reader) that there is a whole hidden iceberg of story hiding below the chilly surface—and that’s an irresistible hook.
Cora is an instantly fascinating character—and an incredibly unreliable narrator. And who doesn’t love an unreliable narrator? The detective’s patient approach provides a slow burn of tension as he gently pushes Cora to tell her story again and again—and each time she does, there are new details, new revelations, and new hints. Cora’s not devious in the way of, say, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Instead, she’s damaged, and the interrogation turns into something akin to therapy. Hammesfahr’s great achievement with the character is how she starts off as a monster, a woman who commits a senseless murder, and slowly evolves into an incredibly sympathetic person.
The Twist Derby
That sympathy is earned, too, as the true story of Cora slowly emerges. The book is almost like a long conversation between the detective and Cora, a back-and-forth that teases out twist after twist. Hammesfahr totally gets how to use an unreliable narrator, as Cora lets things slip—accidentally or unintentionally at first, offering intrigue, then in a rising tumult of revelation that even surprises her. And Cora’s story isn’t cheap—there’s an emotional gut punch behind every gruesome moment of discovery. That emotional weight is glimpsed in the early episodes of the TV adaptation—another reason it’s been instantly compelling for viewers.
You can tell that a book has been thoughtfully assembled when you realize the distinct plot strands could each be a novel on their own. The story of a woman who mysteriously assaults and kills someone on a beach is one whole novel. The story of Cora and her family, slowly revealed over the course of the book, could be another, equally compelling. Cora’s younger sister, Magdalena, suffered from a terrible disease that should have seen her dead at a very young age—but Cora’s mother literally devotes all her energies to keeping Magdalena alive. This single-minded obsession leaves Cora and her father adrift, pushed together figuratively and literally in ways that are uncomfortable and borderline inappropriate, yet Cora and Magdalena manage to forge an affectionate relationship despite the suffocating dysfunction of their family. Both girls are suppressed and broken by their situation, and the way this dysfunctional family drama plays out both breaks your heart and links directly to the shocking murder that opens the book.
Expect to hear a lot more about Petra Hammesfahr in the wake of The Sinner’s success. Although she only has one other book in English at the moment—The Lie, equally great—she’s a prolific and award-winning novelist in her native Germany. The woman knows how to write a twisting crime thriller, is what we’re saying, and we expect that if you enjoy The Sinner you’ll have a lot of freshly-translated Hammesfahr books to read soon enough.
So, color us not surprised at all The Sinner is the water cooler TV show of the summer. If you’ve watched the first few episodes and you’re hooked, all we can say is: strap yourself in, because the ride is going to get all kinds of crazy—in a very good way. (And if you’re impatient, just read the book, which will give you all the spoilers you could ever ask for.)