Nicci French

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"Secret Smile"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 16, 2004)

Miranda and Brendan meet in such an innocent way... both part of the same ice skating party. Their affair is short...she ends it when she comes home to find him all comfortable in her apartment, reading one of the most secret and humiliating parts of her diary. She thinks that’s the last of him, until she meets with her sister Kerry.

Kerry’s looking fabulous, and she’s totally in love. Miranda’s happy until she finds out that the object of Kerry’s affection is Brendan. Worse, he's told everyone that Miranda was crushed by their break up -- because he dumped her. He forces himself into her life more and more, manipulating her parents, sister, even her friends, so that Miranda is in a position of having to defend herself. They all think that she’s torn up by her loss of Brendan. The more he twists things around, the more she wants to prove him wrong so that they can stop pitying her. At first, she doesn’t think that there’s anything more going on than a sick game; something that everyone, even a shrink, seems to think she’s imagining. When tragedy strikes twice, both times taking someone she loves away from her, she knows it’s his doing; but how does she prove it to the police before he kills again?

This Brendan is a total piece of work...a work of genius, on the part of the authors, yes, but also one of total frustration. He is so clever and vile all at the same time...he befriends everyone, and is so innocuous, so gentle, that it’s little wonder that even the police befriend him. He hits all his marks with ease, tying up even the most innocent things into a complicated knot to fit his own plans. When he and Kerry announce their engagement, Miranda, who thinks that Brendan's evil, manages to keep a good face on it; she wants Kerry to be happy, and he’s so glib and good that sometimes even she doubts herself. But then, he leans over and says something completely sick in her ear so that she’ll react...a reaction he twists into her being upset that he’s marrying someone else. He even manages to manipulate the situation so that he and Kerry end up living with Miranda in her tiny apartment.

For me, the worst of the frustration comes when he’s got her own parents siding against her...and that makes me so mad because you’d think that no matter how conniving...er, sorry, convincing a man is, he’s still a stranger, and your daughter’s still your family. She can’t talk to her family or friends, and so, she ends up going on and on about it with her new boyfriend; and you know that’s not a good thing, either. So, it gets all the more frustrating because you want this creep to get his comeuppance...you want her family to apologize because that will give you a bit of a catharsis, to see her (and yourself...because even if Miranda harbors some doubts, we never do) justified. It creates an extremely burning desire to keep turning the pages, looking for this flawless planner to fail.

Of course, since this is Nicci French, the resolution isn’t that easy. This author duo always pick the slightly off kilter edge of things, taking usual premises and turning them inside out...or taking unusual ones and using them to forge a story that is quite unlike anything you’ve ever read before. And because of this, as I said, the solutions are never easy. As in Land of the Living, a lot of the success rests on no one believing the protagonist despite the fact she seems perfectly credible. Miranda, who works under her uncle as a decorator and therefore always seems to have bits of paint and plaster dust in her short hair, couldn’t be more stable. The ending is not even in the neighborhood of the inevitable solution you would expect, but in the end, is the only course that can be taken.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews
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"Land of the Living"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer APR 30, 2003)

"One day soon," he said, "and you won't know in advance, I'll come in here and I'll give you a piece of paper and a pen and you can write a letter. A goodbye letter. You can write to anybody you want. I'll post it. You can say anything you want, unless I don't like it. I don't want any moaning. It can be a will, if you want...and then when you've written the letter, I'll do the deed."

Land of the Living at amazon.com

Abbie Deveraux awakens in darkness. Eventually she realizes that she has been bound, a hood placed over her head. She can't remember how she got there, and her captor, who comes to give her water and food and the humiliating use of a bucket tells her very little. He is derisive of her, cruel, and the only real clues she has too hold onto are the five names of women who have suffered this torture before her. When she manages to escape, she flees to a nearby house, and when she wakes up, she's in the hospital. She has some ligature marks from where she was bound, but since her memory is so foggy, she has no concrete information to give them.

Read excerptIf that was not bad enough, one of the experts called in to examine her say that it's all in her mind, that it's a fantasy, a cry for help. The police drop her, and now, alone in the world, she needs to track down the pieces of her life. What she discovers is shocking...she quit her job, she can't find her car or her possessions, she walked out on her long time live-in lover, Terry. When she finally does find the place she's been staying, with a mysteriously missing woman named Jo, things only get more confusing. As she tries to piece together her life, she knows time is running out, and it'll be up to her to find out the identity of the killer, before he tracks her down.

French employs two deliciously diabolical twists to make this a very suspenseful read. Usually, we all think, or at least hope, that when our hero or heroine gets stuck in a desperate situation, all will be well if they can just get to the police. Even in cases where the police have shown doubt, there is always one cop who is willing to believe, and put his neck out on the line. Not so here. Until Abbie meets the handsome Ben, who knows more about her past than he's willing to tell, she has no one at all. People who have been her friends and loved her for years have a hard time believing her since the police don't. This reaction, is, well, to be honest, absolutely rotten on the part of her friends, but makes sense. We are all trained to believe that the police will protect us...and when they, the ultimate authority, don't believe in our problems, how can our friends be expected to?

The second twist is that Abbie and the killer are tracking each other. He knows all sorts of things about her, and she, nothing of him. In many ways she still has the hood over her head, as she feels her way around the black room of her past. Sometimes the bits of information she gets seem to muddy the waters more than clear them.

You have to admire Abbie. There are a couple of times during the course of this book where you think that's all too much for anyone to bear, she's going to loose it...and she doesn't. She is a combination of incredible courage and crushed self-assurance, and as she scrabbles for some edge to peel back and show the truth, you find yourself liking her more and more. And as for the book as a whole? You won't be able to return to the land of the living until you've finished this fast paced British thriller.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 25 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Land of the Living at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Nicci French is the pseudonym of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, two English journalists. They are married and live in Suffolk, England.

Nicci Gerrard was born in 1958 and grew up in Worcestershire/Shropshire, near the Wales border. She studied English literature at Oxford University where she received first class honours. Her first job was taking care of emotionally disturbed children. She then taught English literature in Los Angeles and at London University and founded and edited Women's Review, a magazine for women on art, literature, and female issues. Nicci married her first husband in 1981 with whom she had two children, a son in 1987 and a daughter the following year. From 1989 to 1990 she was acting literary editor at The New Statesman, where she met Sean French. They were married in October 1990 and have two daughters, born in 1991 and 1993. Since 1995, Nicci has been a senior feature writer and contributing editor at the Observer. She has contributed to such publications as The New Statesman, The Guardian, The Independent and The Sunday Times and is the author of a novel under her own name which will be published in the UK in early May.

Sean French was born in Bristol, England, in 1959. He studied English literature at Christ Church, Oxford University, where he received first class honours. In 1981, he won the British Vogue talent contest and was the magazine's theater critic from 1981 to 1986. He held a variety of journalism jobs, including film critic for Marie Claire and columnist for The New Statesman. He now devotes himself full time to writing books and has published novels, biographies and essays under his own name as well as the novels by Nicci French.

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