We’re thrilled to be welcoming Nicci French (aka Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) to First Monday Crime next week. The Lying Room is their first standalone novel since finishing the very successful Frieda Klein series. As well as a review, Nicci and Sean have very kindly agreed to answer some questions for us.
Please can you tell us a bit about your new book – The Lying Room.
This is a story set off by one decision. A married woman looks down at the body of her murdered lover. Should she call the police and upend her life? She doesn’t, and this sets of a catastrophic train of events.
After writing your Frieda Klein novels for a number of years, what’s it been like switching to a standalone?
We’d spent almost a decade living in Frieda’s world, with its sense of accumulating dread. Writing The Lying Room felt like stepping out into the sunshine – although bad things can happen in the sunshine. We had a new setting, new characters, and a different kind of story – it felt like starting again.
Now, Neve Connolly. When I first started reading it, I could really relate to her. The opening scene of breakfast on a school day is one that plays out across the country. By the end of the first chapter though we discover that Neve is not who we think she is. How did you create your latest protagonist?
Whenever we talk about a story, we talk about who this story needs to happen to. What The Lying Room needed was an ‘ordinary’ woman, middle-aged, with a husband and children, struggling with work and a home and a pet and friends. We wanted to make every bit of her normal, familiar life a source of suspense. We wanted to write a novel in which an ordinary woman (who isn’t very good at being a detective) has to fight for the lives of people she loves and for herself, and at the same time remember to feed the guinea pig and do the laundry. Also, we had spent years writing about Frieda Klein, who is an extraordinary woman with particular abilities. It was refreshing to spend time with a leading character who was more like us!
I’m sure you’ve been asked this question so many times but how does your writing partnership work? I can see how it might work with multiple viewpoints but in The Lying Room you just have Neve. How did you keep her voice consistent?
We plan our books together, we do the research together but we never actually write together. One of us will write a particular section, then email it to the other, who is free to edit, change, add, cut. They then continue, email it back to the other and so on. But we only begin writing a book when we’re clear we have the same story, the same character, in our heads. Also, what’s crucial about our collaboration is it’s not Nicci Gerrard trying to make her writing fit with Sean French and Sean French trying to write a bit like Nicci Gerrard. We both write as this other writer, ‘Nicci French’, and it’s as mysterious to us as it is to anyone else.
I know authors have lots of ideas for books but when there’s two of you those ideas obviously multiple. How do you decide what you write? And are you working on something new now?
Our stories emerge out of our endless conversations, things we’re anxious about, things that get under our skin. When we find something that won’t let us go, something that obsesses us both, something we’re willing to give a year of our lives to, then we know we’ve found our subject.
Our next novel is about a woman who has to solve a murder while in prison for that murder.
On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you to be coming to First Monday Crime?
Our excitement at coming to First Monday Crime cannot be captured in mere numbers. But so as not to duck the question, we will give it 11.
A big thank you to Nicci and Sean for answering my questions and to Jessica Barratt for arranging this and for my copy of The Lying Room. Without further ado, let’s find out more about the book.
Neve Connolly looks down at a murdered man.
She doesn’t call the police.
‘You know, it’s funny,’ Detective Inspector Hitching said. ‘Whoever I see, they keep saying, talk to Neve Connolly, she’ll know. She’s the one people talk to, she’s the one people confide in.’
A trusted colleague and friend. A mother. A wife. Neve Connolly is all these things.
She has also made mistakes; some small, some unconsciously done, some large, some deliberate. She is only human, after all.
But now one mistake is spiralling out of control and Neve is bringing those around her into immense danger.
She can’t tell the truth. So how far is she prepared to go to protect those she loves?
And who does she really know? And who can she trust?
A liar. A cheat. A threat. Neve Connolly is all these things.
Could she be a murderer?
It’s been quite a while since I’ve read any Nicci French novels. Two of my most prized books are first editions of Killing Me Softly and Secret Smile. Somehow I’ve completely missed out the Frieda Klein series so I’m pleased to be making up for lost time with The Lying Room.
Neve Connolly appears to be a normal, ordinary woman. The book starts with a scene familiar to many – getting the family through breakfast and out the door. I know that one for sure! But then Neve gets a text from a man she knows intimately. A man who isn’t her husband. And from that point on, her life spirals out of control.
As I haven’t read any Nicci French books for a number of years now, I’d forgotten how much they delve into their main character’s life. By the end of the book I felt I knew Neve incredibly well. Even more than her own friends, since they didn’t know her level of deceit. At first she lies to cover herself but then it’s to protect her daughter, Mabel. She’s about to go off to university but she’s fragile after a few years of mental health issues. Although the problem is never fully revealed, we know enough to see that it’s put significant strain on Neve’s marriage to Fletcher. Suddenly we start to see that breakfast scene in a new way – like an optician testing new lenses, tweaking until it becomes clear.
Lots of the characters are not as they first seem. It’s hard to know who to trust and Neve has the same problem. They trust Neve though and soon people are unburdening themselves and telling her their secrets, not knowing she has the biggest secret of all.
Neve appears like a swan. She appears to be poised and in control, but under the water she’s flapping away, desperately keeping up the pretence. Even when her house guests outstay their welcome, she manages to maintain the façade. Anything to distract from the terrible mess in the shadows.
Although Neve is the main protagonist, the real star of the book is Whiskey the guinea pig. In between lying to the police, her friends and her family, Neve has to remember to feed Whiskey and clean him out. It’s a beautiful touch to the story, creating a little bit of sanity in Neve’s crazy world.
Hopefully none of us will find ourselves in the same predicament as Neve but I think there is something that can be taken away from this story. The sense of seeing yourself and others. Really seeing. Not just going through the motions of life and work and children. It takes a crisis for Neve to see it. But there’s a sense that all is not lost. A lesson for us all.
Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing partnership of journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. The couple are married and live in Suffolk. There are twenty-one bestselling novels by Nicci French, including the Frieda Klein series, published in thirty-onr languages. The Lying Room is their first standalone novel in ten years.