Fiction - hardcover; Michael Joseph; 416 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Regular readers of this blog will know I have a weak spot for Nicci French, the pseudonym for husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French. I have followed her career right from the start and read each of her 12 bestselling novels, often as soon as they become available in hardcover. (I have reviewed seven of them on this site.)
Of course, they are not "literary" novels, but they are wonderful fun — and very entertaining. My only quibble is that in recent years the formula — of embattled female on the run from a threat no one else can see — has become a little jaded. Hence, I was rather excited when I found out that French was branching off into a new direction, moving away from nail-biting psychological thrillers, and focusing on a new series of crime thrillers (with the emphasis on crime).
Blue Monday, published two months ago, is the first in a series of eight novels based around psychotherapist Frieda Klein.
In this story, which oozes London ambiance — it's particularly evocative of North London and the Square Mile — Frieda is treating Alan Dekker, a troubled man who is desperate to have a child. Sadly, his wife seems unable to fall pregnant, but he is so obsessed with becoming a father that he is dreaming of his son-to-be. He relates these dreams to Frieda, describing the child in minute detail.
At about the same time, a major police hunt is underway, looking for a missing five-year-old boy called Matthew Farraday, who is believed to have been abducted. Matthew's description matches the boy in Alan's dream. Could it be that Alan has snatched him from the street? Is the "dream" merely a cover story?
Frieda takes her concerns to Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who is leading the investigation into Mathew's disappearance, but he think she is wasting his time. But when an important link with another unsolved abduction — of a young girl 20 years go in similar circumstances — emerges, Frieda suddenly becomes a vital cog in the inquiry.
Blue Monday isn't a police procedural, so it's not that sort of crime novel. But it is very much a page-turner, with a mystery to solve and a relatively satisfying — if slightly unrealistic — ending. And while Karlsson — a divorced father of two young children — and Frieda — a loner with a troubled family background — are well drawn and believable characters, you get the feeling that French has deliberately kept many things about them under wraps in order to flesh them out in later books.
It may also be the reason why the narrative has quite a lot of distractions — Frieda's academic background, her tendency to walk the streets at night to overcome insomnia, her delicate relationship with a demanding 16-year-old niece and a fledgling friendship with a Ukrainian builder, just to name a few. There are so many of these subsidiary storylines it feels as if French decided to lay the foundations of a thousand different threads to draw upon in future novels.
I can't say Blue Monday feels that much different from the usual Nicci French fare. The fear and paranoia — and even Karlsson's refusal to believe Frieda's initial claims — are distinctive trademarks from her earlier work. Perhaps the only real significant change is that the narrative has switched from intimate first-person to "remote" third person.
Regardless, Blue Monday is a fast-paced read, with a few twists and turns along the way, making it far from predictable. It certainly kept me entertained last weekend when I was holed up in bed with a nasty chest cold.