Combining a serious exploration of very real emotions with the stylistic demands of a thriller is a task that is far from easy, and one that Nicci French has achieved with varying success in half a dozen novels to date. In the latest, Secret Smile, French has got the balance perfectly; the result is a chilling study of obsession and revenge.
Miranda Cotton is twentysomething, likeable and attractive, and full of the familiar middle-class assumptions and neuroses that French is so good at manipulating. Used to getting what she wants, Miranda has entered easily into a relationship with a stranger she met at an ice rink. But one day when she arrives home to find her new boyfriend reading her diary, she finds the excuse to break off the affair, of which she is already beginning to tire. Getting Brendan out of her life, however, proves harder than evicting him from her flat. A couple of weeks later he turns up again, this time as her sister's new lover. She knows that Brendan is still obsessed with her, but how can she destroy the new-found happiness of a sister whom she has always overshadowed? Her reactions veer from embarrassment to fear as Brendan's intentions begin to threaten not only her own sanity, but the safety of her family and friends.
Secret Smile extracts terror from the everyday. French has not resorted to sensationalist thrills but has grounded the novel in an intimate domesticity. These are the commonplace coincidences and motivations that can send a hitherto ordinary life spiralling into nightmare. The escalation of violence is well paced, beginning with the simplest of unsettling gestures - a look, a throwaway remark or, as the title suggests, a smile - and moving through disturbing passages of aggression to a final twist which, although rather predictable, is a satisfying resolution.
There is nothing particularly new in the basic premise of this novel, which follows the formula of the solitary person fighting evil with only the reader as accomplice. What sets the book apart - and the reason that novels by Nicci French are consistently so popular - is quite simply the quality of the writing and the acute psychological perception.
In between the shifting moments of fear and relief, Secret Smile has serious things to say about the roles prescribed for us all by family life, about the conflict a woman faces between independence and emotional or physical vulnerability. It is a testament to the partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French that these characters are written with such coherence, in a book which proves that two people really can write a novel that has one voice.