Complicit, By Nicci French

Slightly suspect characters
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The Independent Culture

The latest thriller from Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, the crime-writing duo who make up the best-selling Nicci French brand, reels in readers from the start.

Complicit begins with a woman in a flat with a dead man. Who is she? Who is he? Why are they there? Music teacher Bonnie Graham is house-sitting in a friend's flat. The corpse – well, to explain would rather ruin the pace. Suffice to say he's met a sorry end, Graham is frantically cleaning up, and the situation looks almost as bleak for her as for him.

These facts are established using a narrative technique that makes reading Complicit a bit like watching a tennis match. The action is split between passages marked "before" and "after", which build the atmosphere but make the head spin. This shuttling back and forth in time can be confusing, although two fonts are deployed, helpfully, to differentiate. But it cleverly weaves the story of a stifling summer punctuated by a violent murder and the disposal of the corpse.

In the "before" sections, we see a group of old acquaintances coming together in a band to play at a friend's wedding. Unprofessional, unsure and, in some cases, unenthusiastic, they are herded into action by Graham. As they rehearse, tempers become more frayed when a professional musician is thrown into the mix. Past relationships, new hopes, old sins and fresh passions result in rising tension in the band and on the page. Meanwhile, in the "after" passages, Graham attempts to cover up a murder.

With its friendships gone sour and dreams curtailed, Complicit is a skilfully woven tapestry of the disappointments of modern life. The only pity is that the characters are almost universally unlikeable – whether it's Graham, moping through rehearsals and exhibiting frankly baffling choices of bed partner, her whinging ex-boyfriend, her feckless yummy-mummy friend or the vile pub musician who upsets the band's apple cart, it's increasingly hard to care who the culprit is. In the end, the carefully constructed plot is the real hero.

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