Review: Blue Monday by Nicci French
Michael Joseph, €13.99
Most crime and thriller authors build a loyal following by creating a compelling series character -- think Ian Rankin's dour Rebus, or Mark Billingham's DI Tom Thorne.
Nicci French, the pen name for the husband-and-wife writing team of Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, have chosen to make their name with 12 standalone thrillers, from the chilling horror of their debut The Memory Game, to last year's Complicit. Blue Monday is their attempt to crack the series market: it's the first of eight novels which are set to star psychotherapist Frieda Klein, and true to form, it comes with a whopping great twist (or two) in the tale.
Klein is a typically Frenchian creation: the pair, who write alternate chapters, editing each other's work, are old hands at creating troubled, vivid, complex female leads, and Klein is no exception. Estranged from her family, an insomniac, she walks the streets of London at night in an attempt to quiet her brain, "hissing with images".
Cool and clinical, a deep thinker, she is disturbed when she realises the fantasies that her newest patient, Alan Dekker, is detailing -- of his hunger to have a small, red-headed little boy of his own -- match far too closely for comfort the description of five-year-old Matthew Farraday, who has just been abducted from outside his school.
She tells the police, who are underwhelmed, until it emerges that Alan had similar fantasies 22 years ago, when another child was taken, and Klein is drawn into the race.
Blue Monday takes a while to get going: we spend almost too much time learning about characters who are obviously set to make future appearances in the books to come -- the Ukrainian builder Josef, who provides well-timed light relief; the fallen mentor Reuben, who acts as Klein's boozy sounding board, and her self-harming niece Chloe.
But when it kicks off, it does with a vengeance; Klein's narrative is interspersed, distressingly, with snippets from the child's thoughts, shut up alone in the dark where "only his heart still spoke, like a drum under his stretched skin. I-am, I-am, I-am".
It's a close-run thing with Sophie Hannah, but Nicci French is undeniably at the top of British psychological suspense writing, expert in the unguessable twist, supremely skilled at ratcheting up the tension.
While the pressure is kept high in Blue Monday -- the policeman leading the search, Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, feels "as if the time was scratching at him" -- and while the authors summon up the wet, orange-lit, potentially deadly streets of London with their usual skill, the novel fails to quite live up to their past high standards.
The premise is a little too wild, too utterly dependent on chance, the twist not quite as unguessable as twists past. That said, not quite up to par for Nicci French is still streets ahead of most thrillers, and they leave enough intriguing loose ends and unravelling knots to make the next in their series worth looking out for.
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