Review - Guilty By Definition by Susie Dent

I’ve been excited about Susie Dent’s first novel since it was announced at the Bonnier Fiction Showcase back in November, so I was very pleased to get my hands on a proof copy.

It’s as though this book was written for me. I did a Masters in Linguistics at one of the Oxford colleges referenced in the book, and worked for a dictionary during my time there, doing the same etymology research work as several of the main characters. I love language and I love Oxford, and Susie Dent has written a love letter to both. Guilty By Definition is a beautifully written story with believable characters and a unique and intriguing mystery that unfolds through a series of linguistics puzzles contained in letters sent to a dictionary office. It becomes clear that the puzzles relate to the disappearance of a young woman ten years earlier, but the letter writer also appears to have knowledge of the past mistakes and misdeeds of various characters. Each reveal along the way feels like a piece of a jigsaw slotting into place, or part of a puzzle box yielding the next step.

There are recurring references to the peculiarities of language, but these feel entirely natural, given the characters’ focus on linguistics, and they are a big part of what makes this book so different from anything else I’ve read. There are also lots of those little moments of description where, as a reader, you think ‘oh yes, that’s just how it is, that’s just how it feels.’ Those moments are one of the things that make a book stay with me, and this one has certainly stuck in my mind. I’d love to read more about these characters – and I’ll definitely read whatever Susie writes next.