Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 352 pages; 2009.
I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriller and there’s no one better to deliver a thoroughly entertaining romp than Nicci French, the pseudonym for the writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.
The duo’s latest novel What To Do When Someone Dies delivers what you would normally expect from the French “franchise” — a suspenseful story that keeps one reading late into the night. But in this instance the narrative, while tautly written and providing all the French trademarks — a paranoid woman whom no one believes is telling the truth — there’s something slightly unbelievable about it all, with very little ringing true.
The premise is a good one though. A 34-year-old woman, Ellie, is told that her husband has died in a car accident. A female passenger, thought to be his mistress, has also died. But Ellie, wracked by grief, is convinced that Greg could not have been having an affair and embarks on an elaborate “investigation” to prove to her family and friends that he was murdered. Along the way her behaviour becomes increasingly paranoid and abnormal, to the point where the police consider her a suspect in a separate crime that develops in the latter third of the story.
Typically, Ellie is your normal Nicci French character — young, articulate, domesticated and surrounded by lovely friends — which makes the drama of her situation all the more heightened. But for the most part I had to totally suspend belief otherwise I’m afraid I might have thrown this book against the wall from sheer frustration. Ellie not only does a whole lot of stupid things — and seemingly gets away with them — she doesn’t really behave as one would expect a grief-stricken widow to behave.
And there are little holes in the plot that annoyed me. For instance, Ellie runs out of money and food, but still manages to travel on the London Underground every day and go for drinks with her friends. She’s also lost her husband but her parents are nowhere to be seen. And the family of her husband’s supposed mistress don’t seem in the least interested in her — surely they would be just as curious as her about the affair?
Finally, the book also takes a damn long time to get going, although when it does take off, about two-thirds of the way in, it is relentless in increasing the tension to almost unbearable proportions. The ending, when it comes, is not so much predictable but kind of lame, as if the writers had reached their page quota and need to wrap things up quickly.
On the whole, this is an exciting if somewhat implausible thriller. And without wishing to damn it with faint praise, What To Do When Someone Dies kept me entertained in my sick bed earlier this week, which is more that you can say for a lot of other thrillers on the market.