Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Michael Joseph, Nicci French, Publisher, Setting

‘Blue Monday’ by Nicci French


Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 416 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Regular readers of this blog will know I have a weak spot for Nicci French, the pseudonym for husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French. I have followed her career right from the start and read each of her 12 bestselling novels, often as soon as they become available in hardcover.

Of course, they are not “literary” novels, but they are wonderful fun — and very entertaining. My only quibble is that in recent years the formula — of embattled female on the run from a threat no one else can see — has become a little jaded. Hence, I was rather excited when I found out that French was branching off into a new direction, moving away from nail-biting psychological thrillers, and focusing on a new series of crime thrillers (with the emphasis on crime).

Blue Monday, published two months ago, is the first in a series of eight novels based around psychotherapist Frieda Klein.

In this story, which oozes London ambiance — it’s particularly evocative of North London and the Square Mile — Frieda is treating Alan Dekker, a troubled man who is desperate to have a child. Sadly, his wife seems unable to fall pregnant, but he is so obsessed with becoming a father that he is dreaming of his son-to-be. He relates these dreams to Frieda, describing the child in minute detail.

At about the same time, a major police hunt is underway, looking for a missing five-year-old boy called Matthew Farraday, who is believed to have been abducted. Matthew’s description matches the boy in Alan’s dream. Could it be that Alan has snatched him from the street? Is the “dream” merely a cover story?

Frieda takes her concerns to Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who is leading the investigation into Mathew’s disappearance, but he think she is wasting his time. But when an important link with another unsolved abduction — of a young girl 20 years go in similar circumstances — emerges, Frieda suddenly becomes a vital cog in the inquiry.

Blue Monday isn’t a police procedural, so it’s not that sort of crime novel. But it is very much a page-turner, with a mystery to solve and a relatively satisfying — if slightly unrealistic — ending. And while Karlsson — a divorced father of two young children — and Frieda — a loner with a troubled family background — are well drawn and believable characters, you get the feeling that French has deliberately kept many things about them under wraps in order to flesh them out in later books.

It may also be the reason why the narrative has quite a lot of distractions — Frieda’s academic background, her tendency to walk the streets at night to overcome insomnia, her delicate relationship with a demanding 16-year-old niece and a fledgling friendship with a Ukrainian builder, just to name a few. There are so many of these subsidiary storylines it feels as if French decided to lay the foundations of a thousand different threads to draw upon in future novels.

I can’t say Blue Monday feels that much different from the usual Nicci French fare. The fear and paranoia  — and even Karlsson’s refusal to believe Frieda’s initial claims — are distinctive trademarks from her earlier work. Perhaps the only real significant change is that the narrative has switched from intimate first-person to “remote” third person.

Regardless, Blue Monday is a fast-paced read, with a few twists and turns along the way, making it far from predictable. It certainly kept me entertained last weekend when I was holed up in bed with a nasty chest cold.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Michael Joseph, Nicci French, Publisher, Setting

‘Complicit’ by Nicci French


Fiction – hardcover; Michael Joseph; 384 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to books, everyone has their guilty pleasure — and mine is Nicci French*. Her novels are not exactly highbrow literature, but each one delivers an entertaining and thrilling read, with plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing right until the final page.

I’ve read each of her 11 novels (although you’ll only find six reviewed on this site), and Complicit, her 12th (published last week), was eagerly anticipated by Yours Truly. I saved it for my four-day Easter break and raced through it in a matter of a day, because, as cliched as this sounds, I could not bear to put it down!

The story begins with our narrator, Bonnie Graham, visiting her boyfriend’s flat only to find the body of a man laying face down, arms splayed, with a dark stain of blood spreading from under his head. Quite clearly he is dead. But instead of calling the police and doing what you would normally expect someone to do when caught up in such terrible circumstances, Bonnie calls her best friend, Sonia, to help her dispose of the body.

But who is the victim? And did Bonnie murder him? If so, why did she commit the crime? And will Sonia help, or go to the police herself?

The psychological tension is strengthened by the method in which the story is told. There are no chapters in the book, but the narrative is broken into two threads — before and after the murder — which are chopped up into bite-sized chunks and interleaved. This allows you to contrast the events leading up to the murder with those that occur long after the body has been dumped.

It’s difficult to flesh out the storyline without giving away crucial plot spoilers, but I can tell you that it’s set in London over a six-week period. Bonnie, who is a music teacher, has agreed (against her better judgement) to put together a band to perform at a friend’s wedding in September. She assembles a motley crew of musicians, young and old alike, none of whom get on particularly well. This creates its own set of tensions as petty jealousies and old rivalries come to the fore. The more you read, the more you begin to realise that any one of these characters could be the murderer — or the victim.

But, as ever with a Nicci French book, all is not as it seems. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the story and know where it is most likely headed, a new bit of information comes to light that turns everything upside down. I’d got about half-way through the book, convinced that I knew the outcome, only to find I was utterly wrong when I did, at last, reach the end.

Is it plausible? Probably not. But who cares? This is a deliciously fun and genuinely thrilling read. I just wish I didn’t have to wait another 12 months for the next one!

UPDATE: This novel is being published in the US under the title The Other Side of the Door.

* Nicci French is a pseudonym for the husband-and-wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Nicci French, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Until It’s Over’ by Nicci French


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 380 pages; 2009.

Proving that you should never judge a book by it’s cover (because surely this is the dullest cover I’ve seen in a long while), Until It’s Over is another fine psychological thriller by the husband-and-wife writing team of Nicci French.

Set in London, it tells the story of Astrid Bell, a cycle courier, who survives a nasty accident in which her bicycle slams into the open door of her neighbour’s car. Nothing particularly strange there, but the next day her neighbour is found dead, savagely beaten and hidden behind some garbage dumpsters, and immediately suspicion falls on Astrid.

When, several days later, Astrid is dispatched to a client’s house to collect a package from a wealthy woman, such suspicion is ratcheted up a few knots. Why?  Because Astrid attends the house only to discover the woman lying face down in the hallway, her face disfigured by ugly knife wounds.

The police immediately assume Astrid is the culprit, because she is the only obvious link between the two murders. And then, just as Astrid’s pleads that it is nothing but a co-incidence, someone else to whom she is linked turns up dead…

Unlike French’s latest offering, the somewhat implausible What To Do When Someone Dieswhich I read last month, this one rings very true. It’s set in a house share in Hackney, North London, and French has peopled it with believable characters, all of whom could be the likely culprit.

As ever, Astrid is a typical French character, a confident young woman with everything to live for, who suddenly finds her life taking a dramatic, dark twist: someone is deliberately killing people she knows, either to scare her or implicate her, and there seems little she can do about it.

What I didn’t expect as I ploughed through this novel, anxious to discover the ending, was the sudden switch in narrator half-way through. French has done this before — in her 2005 novel Catch Me When I Fall — but this time it feels especially creepy, because now we begin to see events through the eyes of the killer. Initially, I found this change in point-of-view slightly jarring, but the narrator’s voice is so chilling and believable, that it soon came to pass. It does mean that most of the narrative is re-told from the murderer’s perspective, but this is no boring rehash of the storyline: you get to see exactly how — and why — the murders took place, and it’s not what you might expect.

The ending is suitably dramatic, too, and after such a slow build-up of tension over the previous 300-plus pages is it any wonder I felt a little wrung out by it all. This is a terrific thriller, and if you’ve not read any Nicci French before it’s a good a place to start as any.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Nicci French, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘What To Do When Someone Dies’ by Nicci French


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.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Nicci French, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Losing You’ by Nicci French


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Books; 293 pages; 2007.

I’m a long-time Nicci French fan, but it’s been more than two years since I picked up anything written by this husband-and-wife team. Once-upon-a-time I would anxiously await each new release, sometimes even buying them in hardcover when expenses would allow, because I enjoyed reading these psychological thrillers so much.

But I found the last French book, Catch Me When I Fall, slightly disappointing. It felt like the girl-on-the-run-from-a-stranger franchise had become tired and too formulaic, or perhaps I’d simply cottoned on to the fact that Nicci French is a one-trick pony and I wanted a little more from the reading experience. Needless to say, I didn’t rush out and buy the next one: I bided my time and acquired it via BookMooch a month or so ago.

Losing You, I am happy to report, is a welcome breaking of the mould. This time it’s not a young woman being stalked that forms the backbone of the narrative, but a mother searching for her missing child. It’s a refreshing change.

The novel — the 10th one in the French catalogue — is set on Sandling Island, 60 miles from London, “but, rimmed as it was by the tidal estuary and facing out to open sea, it had the feel of a different world, gripped by weather and seasons; full of wild spaces, loneliness, the strange call of sea-birds and sighing winds”. It’s the ideal claustrophobic and slightly creepy setting for the story that enfolds over the course of the next 290 pages.

Nina Landry, recently separated from her husband, is about to embark on a Christmas break to Florida with her new beau and her two children, 15-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) and 11-year-old Jackson. The day ahead looms large, with a million tasks to do before the family heads to Heathrow for their 6pm flight, but things go off kilter before it even gets started.

First, Nina’s car breaks down, then her house is swamped by people throwing a surprise 40th birthday party for her — and all this before 11am. It’s only when Nina notices Charlie’s absence that the suspense gets ratcheted up a notch or two.

When she calls the police, they assume it’s simply a case of a teenager running away because she’s unhappy at home. But Nina knows this isn’t true.

Embarking on her own investigation, she slowly pieces together Charlie’s last movements and, in doing so, learns that the relationship she has with her daughter is not as open or as trusting as she first thought. Nina slowly begins to uncover secrets within secrets, all of which lead her to believe that Charlie will turn up dead if she doesn’t find her quickly…

This is typical French fare in the sense that the suspense doesn’t really let up from the word go, helped in part by absolutely no chapter breaks. The prose style hurries along at an ever-quickening pace without losing the rich detail and vivid descriptions that bring the narrative to life — you get a real sense of the people, the places and the events that occur in ways that a less-busy, tell-don’t-show style would fail to deliver.

There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, and many characters are not what they first appear to be, and all the while the story never really escalates into all-out melodrama. Indeed, it reads as quite an authentic account of a panicked mother trying to find her missing child when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to take her concerns seriously enough.

Losing You is a thoroughly entertaining read, one to quicken the pulse and test your powers of deduction all the way through. I can honestly say I did not guess the ending nor the perpetrator, which is quite rare in much of my recent reading experience.

Now, that French seems to have worked her way into my good books once again, I wonder where I can get my hands on a copy of her latest novel Until It’s Over

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Nicci French, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Catch Me When I Fall’ by Nicci French


Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 304 pages; 2005.

Holly Krauss is a bundle of energy. She’s young, vibrant, creative, attractive — and always on the go. Married to the lovely Charlie, a stay-at-home artist, she runs a company of her own with her best friend and business partner, Meg. But despite all her success, her whirlwind lifestyle begins to catch up with her. And when she goes on an all-night bender, the cracks begin to appear in her relationships and before she knows it her entire life is spiralling out of control.

As per usual, Catch Me When I Fall is fairly typical Nicci French fare: a woman on the run from dangerous forces, unable to trust anyone around her, not even her husband. And while this formula has worked very successfully in all of French’s previous novels (this is her seventh book), I found this one was a little too predictable. And some of the “thrills” slightly disappointing.

I also did not like the sudden change in narrator half-way through the book. This took some of the steam out of the engine, and it was difficult to adjust to the new “voice” and to find my bearings as a reader once again.

That aside, I still enjoyed this book. It was a quick read, and the build-up to Holly’s breakdown was well written, intriguing and difficult to put down. And the story, as with every other French novel, had a satisfying, generally well-rounded conclusion.

You could do worse than read this interesting thriller, but if you haven’t read anything by French before I would advise you try some of her earlier stuff: her back catalogue is filled with more gripping page-turning books than this one.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Nicci French, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Secret Smile’ by Nicci French


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 336 pages; 2004.

Secret Smile is the sixth novel by the husband-and-wife-team who write under the pseudonym Nicci French.

In many ways French is a one-trick pony: each book tells the same story — a woman on the run from a menacing force while her family and friends ignore her pleas for help — only the details change. But French has the knack of ensuring each story sounds fresh and new, and, more importantly, scary as hell. Secret Smile is no different.

In this creepy tale painter/decorator Miranda Cotton breaks up with her “almost” boyfriend, Brendan, after she finds him reading her personal diaries without asking. Just two weeks later Brendan becomes engaged to Miranda’s sister, Kerry, after a shock whirlwind romance. This deeply unsettles Miranda, but family and friends misinterpret her disapproval as jealousy, something that Brendan capitalises on by telling people that he dumped Miranda, not the other way around.

Slowly Brendan ingratiates himself more and more into the Cotton family, going out of his way to drive a wedge between Miranda and Kerry.

When his behaviour turns threatening, Miranda finds it difficult to make anyone believe her side of the story. And as things progress from bad to worse, it’s not only Miranda who finds her life put at risk.

This is a definite over-the-top story. But it’s a great chilling psychological romp. And sometimes it’s nice to let a book take you on an exciting journey without having to take anything too seriously. A good read if you’re looking for something entertaining and just a little bit creepy.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Nicci French, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Land of the Living’ by Nicci French


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 384 pages; 2003.

Land of the Living is typical Nicci French fare: a fast-paced, cleverly plotted story. I read it in two sittings and enjoyed every minute of it’s page turning brilliance.

The narrative, which begins with a young woman, Abbie Deveraux, waking up in the dark, hooded and bound, twists and turns its way to a nail-biting conclusion. The I-wonder-what-happens-next element is especially good, even though, on the face of it, the storyline — a woman on the run from an unknown stranger who has murder on his mind — is a familiar construct in many of French’s previous novels.

What elevates this to a proper “thriller” is that the police, and most of Abbie’s friends, do not believe her story so she is left to fend for herself. This woman alone against the odds proves a gripping and irresistible read. Highly recommended.