Crime writer Nicci Gerrard on matters of life . . . and death
PUBLISHED: 12:19 09 December 2014 | UPDATED: 12:56 09 December 2014
A chance discovery in her mother's attic inspired Nicci Gerrard's latest novel, discovers Lucy Etherington. Pictures: Sarah Lucy Brown
Nicci Gerrard – one half of the husband/wife crime-writing duo Nicci French – has written about some seriously dark and disturbing subjects, from missing children to predatory paedophiles, and of course death. Lots of death.
I half expect her to be wandering around a big empty house in a nihilist black polo-neck looking mournfully over a bleak Suffolk landscape like an Ingmar Bergman heroine.
The big empty house part is right – she and husband/co-writer Sean French live in a rambling old vicarage tucked secretly away on the edge of a gorgeous little Suffolk village – and yes there is even a skeleton hanging in the hallway.
“My daughter is a doctor – it’s going to her house soon.”
But inside it’s very bright and homely, with a giant warm family kitchen table that feels like the beating heart of the place.
Nicci herself buzzes around in a stripy jumper that swamps her petite frame. She is vivacious and charming, with a pretty elfin face and warm, husky voice, and as she makes coffee we chat about the difficulties of juggling motherhood and working and writing.
“I have a gorgeous attic study, but I usually end up carting my laptop from room to room,” she says. “I can’t stand silence. I need to be in the middle of life, which is why it’s so hard now our youngest daughter has left home. It’s too quiet!”
I’m slightly in awe of Nicci Gerrard for raising four children, working as a >>
>> journalist and former literary editor, and still finding the time to write 18 thrillers and now seven solo books. Her prolific output belies Cyrill Connelley’s pram in the hall being the enemy of art. How does she find the time?
“If you’re excited by it, you can do anything,” she tells me as we settle in her sun-drenched book-lined drawing room, accompanied by a waggy black Labrador. “If the book doesn’t take fire in you, that’s what makes it difficult.”
Her latest novel, The Twilight Hour, was inspired by having to move her aging parents from their family house in Worcester.
“Like Eleanor [the main character in the book], my mother is very old and frail and registered blind, but also quite fabulous and smart – I’m sure she’d have made a brilliant detective!” says Nicci.
“My father has Alzheimer’s and is bedbound. He was a lovely sweet-natured man, but he’s gone from us now. He’s like a ghost in his own life.”
When the family packed up the attic, they found a film canister which they then had converted on to a disc.
“The whole family gathered to watch it and it was of their wedding. They came walking out of the church together and they looked so young and beautiful, while the couple watching it were old and frail. It was hard to believe they were the same people.”
The Twilight Hour is the story of a young man hired to clear out the family home of 95-year-old Eleanor Lee. In the process he uncovers her extraordinary life story and a crime of passion that still haunts her.
“When we look at old people we tend not to see past the wrinkles,” says Nicci. “But in our hearts, we’re all still young and passionate. My mother still flirts like a young girl. My father, just before he became bedbound, swam in the lake in our house in Sweden singing like a little boy. I feel 10 years old sometimes, so when I look in the mirror and see this 56-year-old face I don’t recognise it as being me!”
The book is essentially a meditation on aging, memory and loss, but it’s also very sensual. There’s lots of sex and parties and food and drinking fine wines by a roaring fire.
“I didn’t want it to be a depressing book,” she says. “But I didn’t want to shy away from huge subjects. I trained as a Humanist celebrant two years ago, and I really believe that our attitude to death feeds into the way we live in the moment. Eleanor is old, but she’s still on her journey right until the end.”
Sean pops in to say hello, then disappears into his study – it’s a bit too cold outside for his converted garden shed where he usually writes – to work on his latest book. The pair met and married in 1990 when they were both successful journalists – Nicci emerging from a failed first marriage with two small children – and published their first Nicci French book, The Memory Game, in 1997. Three years later Nicci published her first novel Things We Knew Were True.
“Working with Sean gave me that springboard to write on my own,” she says. “It was as though I needed a disguise.”
Although different genres, the Gerrard/French books obviously share similar interests and tone. Most of their novels straddle London, where they still have a home, and Suffolk, where they bought said rambling vicarage in 1999).
There’s a fascination with hidden rivers and deep canals running through London (“perfect psychological metaphors”), and “the haunting Suffolk coast, which is perfect for thrillers because it’s so isolated.”
“Both the books I write with Sean and on my own are about breaking through that thin ice to what lies beneath,” she says.
“It might go back to when I covered the Rose West trial for The Observer. I was struck by this dumpy, ordinary couple in a terraced house eating roast lamb every Sunday above a torture chamber. It was horrific. And all those missing daughters – it was utterly heartbreaking.”
Perhaps being exposed to the details of the West trial and later writing a book on the Soham murders left her with deeply troubling questions that she now explores in her books.
“Writing does help me process difficult things,” she admits. “But it’s not therapy. It’s more a fascination with human beings. People are endlessly unknowable. That’s why marriages are good – and bad! You never stop getting to know someone…”