THERE are, they admit, three people in the marriage of writers Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. And the presence of police psychoanalyst Frieda Klein helps keep things really exciting, discovers Lee Randall
ALL MARRIED couples finish each other’s sentences. Few do so as cleverly as Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, whose alter ego, Nicci French, is responsible for a string of terrifying thrillers, including the new series – their first – centred around enigmatic psychoanalyst Frieda Klein, a woman with as many dark secrets as the criminals she helps the police bring to justice.
The couple challenged themselves to create a third entity with its own distinctive voice. To that end, they won’t embark on a Nicci French project unless both are enthusiastic about the premise. They do identical research, and while they don’t write together, no copy is deemed publishable until they feel equally responsible for it.
As double acts go, they’re in great form when I meet them in London, having first galloped through the first two Frieda Klein novels, Blue Monday and Tuesday’s Gone, turning pages ever faster to find out not only what happens, but how. How do they keep the suspense tightrope taut in bestseller after bestseller? And won’t that be even harder in a series? During one scary moment in Tuesday’s Gone I consoled myself by thinking: “They can’t kill her, she has to come back in the next book.” But it didn’t stop me fretting, “How will she escape?”
Laughing, they tell me none of these characters has life insurance. French says: “We are living in a post-modern, self-referential world, where everyone knows the rules so well – and they now know about what’s going on beyond the rules. Writing in the thriller genre has certain conventions, and our readers are so unbelievably clever. It’s as if we’re involved in some kind of weird game of trying to outwit them while we’re on the run. The pleasure of that as a writer and reader is genuine, but you can also become insane if you have to produce a solution that’s too bizarre.”
Gerrard chimes in: “We want to write novels about internal landscapes and psychology. Frieda, being a therapist, is like a detective of the mind. She can sense other people’s secrets, and she’s really good at guarding her own secrets. She is somebody you want on your side, who you’re a bit scared of. And she’s damaged. We wanted to see what would happen to her over a decade, which is why there will be eight novels. It’s going to cover about ten years of her life, and the lives of the cast of characters assembled around her.”
“If she survives,” says French, menacingly.
“If she survives,” agrees Gerrard. “Frieda’s now in her mid to late thirties, so she’ll be in her mid to late forties by the last book, and that’s a very significant time in a woman’s life. We’re not religious, we’re quite secular and Protestant in the way we think people are burdened by the things they’ve done. She’ll carry all this baggage with her.”
The secret to creating suspense starts with the concept. “We talk a lot about the things that make us feel really uncomfortable,”says French. “Not just, ‘Hey, wouldn’t this be frightening in a book?’ but, ‘Wouldn’t it be horrible if this happened?’”
“Sometimes we’ve carried around an idea for years and haven’t known how to turn it into a dramatic novel with tension, conflict and characters,” says Gerrard “For example, we wrote Losing You, about a 15-year-old girl going missing. It’s not soon enough for the police to be notified, but her mother knows. It’s very straightforward, every parent’s nightmare. We had the idea for ages, but didn’t know what to do with it. And then we had the idea of setting it almost in real time, six or seven hours, with no chapter headings. Not a second would go past that the reader would miss. Then we thought we’d set it on a spit of land that became an island when the tide came in, on the shortest day of the year. Everything was claustrophobic. When we thought of that and joined it to the idea, the idea worked.”
And when it works, the horror’s so personal it feels as though it’s coming from within. Gerrard explains: “It’s not just like there’s a bomb about to go off, or someone’s going to jump out, it’s more like the things you discover about yourself and about human nature and what you’ll do. One of the things that we’re always writing about is what lies beneath the surface. People go around pretending to be in control and decent and decorous, and actually there’s this wild strangeness about most people. What you can do in thrillers is uncover it. You can turn people inside out. And that’s really disturbing. We always want to write about the horrible, uncomfortable truths people discover about themselves.”
French picks up: “Sometimes what stops thrillers from being terribly frightening is this idea that everyone knows they’re in a thriller, and are all playing their role. We’re interested in people who are in what seems to be normal life and it changes. There’s a real threat, and it becomes frightening.”
Books take about a year and undergo numerous revisions, by which time the authors can find it difficult to assess whether or not the story will prove frightening to readers coming to the material fresh. “You’ve just got to keep faith in it,” he says. “We try not to rely totally on twists, but obviously there are certain moments in some of our books where we really are trying to lead the reader the wrong way. And when you’ve gone over it and over it, you wonder if it’s too obvious. When I see films or read books, I always get caught out. Nicci is very good at spotting things in advance. For instance, Scott Turow’s novel Presumed Innocent is very, very realistic – a lot of it could almost be written by Saul Bellow. It’s got the twist at the end and I was totally dumbfounded.”
Gerrard adds: “That’s an enormous pleasure isn’t it, when you guess and you guess and you guess and you can’t get it?”
“The work we’re doing tends to kind of spoil things,” says French, “because we watch in a technical way. We recently watched the last series of 24. The whole point of it was that everyone turns out to be a traitor. You couldn’t possibly watch it a second time because some of the twists make no sense at all. We don’t know if anyone is going to read our books a second time, but we feel that it has to work, and there are enough clues for you to figure it out.”
I’m curious, as well, about the role of the outsider in these kinds of novels, and in television and film as well. Frieda isn’t a cop and, bright as they are, the police probably couldn’t solve these crimes without her. On television I could point to shows such as The Mentalist or Castle, where the police seem even less capable of closing cases without help. Why is this such a popular convention?
French says: “There’s something psychologically attractive about someone bringing their own special skill and solving a crime in a way the police can’t. It never, ever, ever really happens.”
Gerrard amplifies: “Police are a group of people with rules and uniforms, so putting in an individual who breaks all that open and enables the reader or viewer to identify with them more introduces a kind of freedom.”
“One thing people don’t realise,” adds French, “is that police work, like all work, is routine and dull and most crimes are solved without any brilliant deductions. Even in a straightforward police procedure, the policeman isn’t a real policeman in some way. They’re a maverick, an alcoholic, on their last day before retiring – almost all drama is about that. You’ve got to find some way to put a cuckoo in the nest.”
Frieda makes a great stand-in for the authors themselves, says Gerrard. “What she does, and what writers do, is take chaos and mess and randomness and find a shape and a narrative. Frieda is an impressive therapist, but she’s not a comforting therapist. She believes in autonomy and taking responsibility. She doesn’t think the purpose of life is to be happy or comfortable or peaceful, she thinks it’s about naming and acknowledging things inside of yourself. So she’s quite an uncomfortable guide.”
And a fascinating one, too, so back to your desks, I urge: I’m desperate to know what happens next.
• Nicci Gerrard and Sean French – aka Nicci French – are at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow, 7pm. Tuesday’s Gone is out now, Michael Joseph, priced £12.99.
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