A right pair of shockers: Is there a dark side to Sean French and Nicci Gerrard's domesticity?

The husband-and-wife crime-writing team welcome Henry Sutton to their Suffolk lair

This is how it begins. You find yourself hopelessly lost, deep in rural Suffolk. There's no mobile phone signal, nor anyone about to ask for directions. Your mind drifts to thoughts of the Suffolk Strangler, of a disturbed reclusive harbouring ill intent, a psychotic young man waiting for ...

Somehow, you arrive at a large, old rectory at the end of a gravel track, on the edge of a small village. As the door opens, out bounds a Labrador. Welcoming you in is a tall, thin man – his dark hair receding, his voice soft and calm. In the cavernous kitchen, warmed by a dark red, four-oven Aga, appears a particularly petite woman with the demeanour of an excitable puppy.

Both could not be more friendly, offering coffee, and perfectly ripe cheese and water biscuits. Then, sitting at the worn, antique pine kitchen table, your fears slowly return. You look outside and notice that much of the back garden has been dug up. Another glance around the kitchen and your eyes scan the heavy copper pots, the stray rolling pin, a sinister rack of carving knives.

Yet on the couple talk, about their escape from London, their four nearly grown-up children, their glittering crime-writing persona, Nicci French. For a moment you think, this is it. This is success, fulfilment, happiness, a marriage and a working partnership. However, something's not quite right. It's all too good to be true. You are, in fact, stuck in a Nicci French psychological thriller, and you are never going to get out alive. I have recently immersed myself in her/their backlist, so it's not my fault, it's their fault – for playing on my insecurities and turning contentment into torture. For making me see darkness where there should be light.

A Nicci French novel – What to Do When Someone Dies is the 11th – invariably makes the worst out of a good situation. Ordinary people's lives are shattered by a blast from the past, or a child going missing, or an over-attentive new lover. Or, as in the latest, the revelation that your husband has just been killed in a car accident, and that dying beside him was, seemingly, his mistress. Except, you, Ellie, the heroine and first- person narrator, can't believe Greg was unfaithful, even if the woman was a prolific adulteress. Slowly you begin to believe he was murdered, but why and by whom?

Aside from murder, a Nicci French novel also comes with plenty of soul-searching and heart-rending emotion – aided, or at least manipulated by the fact that the narrator is always a youngish, particularly articulate woman. It is this combination of domestic crime and fraught and occasionally weepy reaction that has made Nicci French synonymous with the term psychological thriller. But who exactly is, or rather are Nicci French?

Sitting opposite me are the former literary journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French – 50 and 49 respectively. Both studied English at Oxford; both then immersed themselves in London literary life, and after Nicci's first marriage failed, leaving her with two young children, they got it together and she had two more children. A move to rural Suffolk followed, as did their first co-written thriller, The Memory Game. About a woman recovering her lost memory following the discovery of a skeleton, it was an instant hit.

Its genesis, according to Gerrard and French, was surprisingly mutual, stemming from a conversation while on a walk. "I think if it had just been Nicci's idea, then she would have written it," says French. "We really did just have this idea together. Because we both worked in the same area of journalism, we'd always done the same thing – read the same thing, passing things back and forwards. We'd read a long article about the whole recovered memory controversy and we were talking about that."

"Before that," says Gerrard, "we had talked about what makes a voice behind a book, and whether or not two people could make a voice. We had this vague idea that one day in the future we'd see whether we could write a book with one voice." "And we thought," says French, "that the idea of recovered memory would be a good subject for a psychological thriller."

"It does seem a bit of a mad idea to say 'we'll write it together,' because people don't do that," says Gerrard. "But it didn't feel that bizarre when we were doing it. It was more like an experiment to see whether we could."

While French had already written two "literary" novels, The Imaginary Monkey and The Dreamer of Dreams, Gerrard hadn't previously done any fiction. However, French's then agent, the late, legendary Pat Kavanagh, recognised their potential and a series developed. Gerrard and French insist that there was no plan or formula, but that the project was always much more organic and messy – just like their lives in the old rectory, with tons of noisy kids. "It really was very unconscious," says Gerrard. "The book we wrote first in some way defined what we were going to do next. When we wrote it we didn't know it was by Nicci French – that there was going to be the name of a woman on it."

"The psychological thriller seemed to be the kind of area of writing that appealed to what we are interested in, what we obsess about," says French. "Interior things, rather than some fantastically clever serial killer, or terrorist group. In a way it felt very natural to us – and then we found that that was the kind of genre we were writing."

The French-Gerrard husband-and-wife crimewriting partnership is not unique. There are the Americans Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, and the Swedes Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who were credited with reinventing the police procedural back in the 1960s. Having jointly researched the material, Sjöwall and Wahlöö would pen alternate chapters, often at the same time. But the division of labour in the Gerrard-French household is something of a mystery.

"We never decide in advance who's going to write the first chapter, until the day arrives," says Gerrard. "It's totally random. It can be either of us."

"We don't have some brilliant method," says French, "even at an early stage when we are just talking about it. It's just a very messy process."

Nicci has a study at the top of the house, and Sean works in a shed in the garden. It seems there is a flow of copy between each other's laptops, which is amended and edited until in the end both feel they own it equally, or rather don't own it equally, because it's become the work of Nicci French.

While French admits to finding it a great liberation to write under a different name and in a different genre, Gerrard wonders whether she would ever have attempted to write fiction on her own. Now, though, she has written three solo novels, with a fourth due out early next year. French is currently working on his fourth. As individual novelists, though, sales are not in the same league as Nicci French. Broadly speaking, French writes sophisticated, almost surreal satires on contemporary society, while Gerrard writes personal dramas. In other words, French is addressing current issues, and Gerrard current feelings. Only together, it seems, do they add the deathly violence.

"We'll never say one of us does something and the other doesn't," says French. "Partly that's the kind of contract of us writing together, and secondly it's misleading, because it doesn't really work like that. Everything is shared."

Gerrard offers, "A lot of people think we discover secrets about each other. I don't think we discover secrets. I think there is something about reading and joining in with someone's imagination. You're part of it. It's really disconcerting and exposing, like going into a tunnel together. We agree to set off down this path, then in this kind of strange mental space together, we're groping around."

"We prod each other," says French. "I've been surprised by Nicci's imagination, her willingness to go on and into certain areas."

It's been an oddly unnerving experience, hearing about this creative companionship. Like all pacts, there's a sense you are being told only so much. Which is where I leave it, and head home in the dark.

The extract

What to Do When Someone Dies, By Nicci French (Michael Joseph £12.99)

"...Like death, affairs happen to other people, not me and Greg. Milena Livingstone. How old was she? What did she look like? All I knew about her was that she had a husband who had identified her body at the same morgue as Greg was in. Perhaps she'd been lying in the drawer above him. In death as in life. I shivered violently, feeling nauseous, then went upstairs to my laptop... then Googled her name."

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital