What To Do When Someone Dies, by Nicci French

A woman's spiral into obsession
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The Independent Culture

Imagine that you're a woman whose husband has died in a grisly car accident. Emotionally devastating, but worse when you learn that he died beside a passenger – a mystery woman. Were the dead couple lovers? This is the premise for Nicci French's new novel, in which the movie-style "high concept" is married to customarily well-honed prose. But the book is significantly different from previous French studies in dark psychology.

The nom de plume that unites the husband-and-wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French has long been a guarantee of pleasurably unsettling studies in psychological suspense. While women are usually the focus of the narrative, the books' appeal across the sexual divide is sui generis. Intriguingly, their female protagonists often share one characteristic: a boundless capacity for making the wrong decisions. But as most of us feel capable of maladroit choices, it's easy to identify with French's heroines.

This novel's plot is set in motion by the accident that kills Ellie Falkner's husband and his passenger. Was Greg cheating on his wife? Ellie deals with this crippling problem in an off-kilter fashion. She is unable to cope with her husband's death, and friends' attempts to pull her out of a neurotic downward spiral fail. She becomes obsessed with the possibility of a liaison between Greg and the dead businesswoman Milena Livingstone, whose professional affairs appear to have been in chaos.

Ellie moves into obsessive territory: she begins detailed charts of Greg's movements before his death, which appear to prove (she desperately maintains) that Greg had not been having an affair. She masquerades as a friend of the dead woman to work at her struggling business, and begins to tell her friends that Greg may have been murdered. The more she alienates people with her claims, both her motives and sanity come under ever-more intense scrutiny.

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