I first came across Nicci French in my local library: I had joined a crime reading group because I wanted to widen my circle of crime fiction and to discuss books with other readers. At that point I had only read Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, and the crime shelves were so packed with writers that I didn't know where to begin. But the group facilitator produced a list, and early on we picked out a Nicci French novel, Blue Monday.
Nicci French is in fact a pair of writers, husband Sean French and his wife Nicci Gerard: and together they write very successful crime fiction. Blue Monday is the first of a sequence of novels featuring the psychotherapist Frieda Stark who works with the police in much the same way as Tony Hill in Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood series. So far the sequence has got as far as Thursday and includes Tuesday's Gone, Waiting for Wednesday and Thursday's Children.
The novels are hard-hitting and often feature highly disturbing scenarios: the abduction of a small child; the murder of a popular local woman who turns out to have had a secret double life; a confused young woman trying to serve tea to a rotting corpse – these books do not pull their punches, but there is always a resolution and that is what makes them satisfying: that, and the fact that it's impossible to guess the outcome. Nicci French is a master of narrative twists: there's always more than one plot-line and the pace rattles on, interspersed by glimpses into Klein's largely dysfunctional personal life. She is typical of the therapist who can't sort out their own emotional life: clear-sighted and helpful with her patients, she is unable to sustain a long-term relationship herself, and in the latest book, Thursday's Children, she abruptly finishes with Sandy, the lovely, understanding man who has given up a life in America to be with her. I'm sure this is not the end of the story; but we'll have to wait for Friday's book to find out.
Setting is very important in crime fiction, and the area of London where Frieda lives is evoked in vivid clarity, as is her basement flat which houses a number of strays passing through, such as Josef, the Polish builder who becomes her friend and confidant. But the novels sometimes step outside London as well, to the Suffolk coast where Frieda grew up and where she is forced to return in order to investigate a case.
The appeal of the psychotherapist is that, unlike with police dramas where we see the who, the what and the where, here we are able to see something of the why. And that is something we all surely cry out to know: when we hear of terrible murders or abductions or attacks or even senseless robberies, more than finding out whodunnit we want to know why they dunnit. And here's where the psychotherapist scores over the policeman: though Frieda Stark is modest about her achievements, she does give us a window on the inner workings of the criminal mind; and that, to me, is more fascinating than any number of car chases.
If you haven't caught up with these stories I urge you to give them a go. Personally, I can't wait for Friday ...
About the reviewer
Liz Gray is a well-known Leicestershire poet. She has performed at Word!, Simon Says and more recently has featured in the Everybody's Reading event, 'Women's Words.' She is a published writer and reviewer and has led poetry workshops at the Richard Attenborough Centre and at local libraries. Her blog can be found at: lizardyoga.wordpress.com.