Secret Smile, By Nicci French

A sinister web of seduction and revenge
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The Independent Culture

What sex is Nicci French? By now, it's an open secret that "Nicci" is the husband-and-wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, although the jacket here maintains that there is a Nicci French living in Suffolk and that "she is the author of six other bestselling novels". Fair enough: Gerrard and French opted to create a vein of psychological thriller-writing in the mode of Ruth Rendell, and no doubt their publisher assured them that a female nom-de-plume would secure the all-important female crime buff, without necessarily alienating male readers.

What sex is Nicci French? By now, it's an open secret that "Nicci" is the husband-and-wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, although the jacket here maintains that there is a Nicci French living in Suffolk and that "she is the author of six other bestselling novels". Fair enough: Gerrard and French opted to create a vein of psychological thriller-writing in the mode of Ruth Rendell, and no doubt their publisher assured them that a female nom-de-plume would secure the all-important female crime buff, without necessarily alienating male readers.

But gender does become an issue with Secret Smile. Previously, the team's writing has gleaned a solid male following. As with Rendell and (latterly) Mo Hayder, men are happy to read crime novels by women which are ready to confront the darker recesses of the human psyche. But what has happened to that inclusivity in Secret Smile?

Here, one of the basic tenets of the feminist novel is securely in place: the heroine must suffer at the hands of one unspeakable man, while all others of the male sex are weak or wrong-headed. And the former universality of experience is swapped for a readable tale of heroine-stalked-by-psychopath, which jettisons the laser-sharp penetration of both male and female psychology that marked the earlier books. Where was Sean French when this decision was taken? Perhaps he freighted in the very female perspective here, working harder than his partner to create a women-directed thriller.

On the level of collar-gripping suspense, Secret Smile certainly delivers. Miranda watches in horror as her jilted boyfriend vengefully destroys the lives of those around her. Brendan seduces her sister, then her best friend, even commits murder, while all around her regard Miranda's warnings as the neurotic babblings of a spurned woman. All this is handled with the quiet assurance that is a Nicci French sine qua non; if we weren't used to superior work from the duo, readers would be more than grateful.

For the novelist William Trevor, the theme of the one clear-sighted character spotting a wrong 'un (while others are blithely unaware) is a recurring motif. Yet French never strip-mines the layers of psychological malaise that Trevor anatomises; everyone's motivation here is fairly straightforward. Alfred Hitchcock noted that audiences must never be allowed to complain "why doesn't he/she go to the police?" In fact, Miranda does - but they, like every one of her friends, family, lovers and acquaintances, have to behave in a uniformly stupid fashion so that the plot engine won't be stalled.

Yes, we are undoubtedly drawn into Miranda's mental torture at the hands of the appalling Brendan. And, yes, a fair measure of suspense is generated, before a curiously flat finale. But Nicci French fans know that the team has set the bar higher than this, and that's the reason it's hard to accept anything less than their best work.

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