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If there's one thing I can do when I'm ill, it's tank my way through a lot of reading material. Daytime TV is a crime against intelligent society and sadly there's only so much one can filter through the treasures of On Demand TV through Virgin, so more often than not I get through being under the weather by going through a hefty heap of books.
So it was that yesterday, in one sitting, I went through the entity of The Safe House, admittedly not the heftiest tome in the back catalogue of husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (aka Nicci French as you are more likely than not already aware), but a satisfying and engrossing read nonetheless. I have to say that after posting a rather derogatory review of another of their efforts not too long along, I was pleased that my 10p charity shop investment of recent weeks provided me with a far more enjoyable reading experience and, for me, harked back to when this writing team were at the height of their powers.
***THE SAFE HOUSE - BASICS***
First published in 1998, back in the years when Nicci French was turning out highly engrossing reads such as Beneath The Skin, The Safe House was republished in 2008. This run accounted for my copy, a slim paperback with a muted photo of three chess pieces, two white ominously manoeuvred against one black. Mine was a "not for resale" (naughty naughty, but seriously, thank you to whoever donated this to charity, and I got more than my 10p-worth of enjoyment from reading something that you had tired of).
It can be bought for £5.99 new through Amazon, and is available for Kindle, in large print, hardback and audio tape.
400 pages (mine is a smaller-print version at 246)
At the same time that a pharmaceutical millionaire and his wife are brutally murdered in their home, a crime which almost also claims the life of their teenage daughter, post-traumatic stress expert Dr. Sam Laschen is moving from London to rural Essex. A new challenge awaits her professionally but as much as anything she is making the move to take her away from memories, to try to further her relationship with her young daughter Elsie, and to establish one way or the other the future of her current relationship.
These two unconnected plotlines converge when the recovering daughter of the victims, Fiona, needs somewhere to recuperate and overcome the trauma of her harrowing near-death experience, not only somewhere safe for her to come to terms with her experience but also somewhere safe for her while the investigation into the perpetrators of the crime is conducted. Somewhere neutral, with someone who can offer the right mix of concern, support, time, space and understanding as her recovery constructs itself.
With her lover already feeling at arm's length from Sam and her daughter, his visits swinging between the satisfying and enjoyable and the deeply frustrating and fraught, and her relationship with Elsie still at times uneven, Sam is reluctant to take in Fiona, before finding herself persuaded for reasons she doesn't seem to fully understand herself. With the almost mute, lost slip of a girl who is delivered to her home comes Dr Michael Daley, her GP, various police officers and investigators, and via Daley, an initial introduction to "higher" rural society amongst the local medical crowd and, as she finds herself drawn into Fiona's case against her best judgement, he also provides the means to start looking further into the situation.
However, as Fiona starts to rebuild her shattered life and emotions and come to terms with what has happened to her and as Sam herself tries to deal with the changes and imbalances in her own life as well as those that came with taking in this vulnerable creature, is unaware that she has invited an unforeseeable danger into her home, the doctor is unaware that she has unwittingly invited a danger into her life that could never have been foreseen.
I loved a lot of Nicci French's early work and it is with regret that I have had to report on more than one review that I think something has been lost from their more recent work. In The Safe House I am pleased to report that it is representational of some of their best work, and I am pleased that I did not let me opinion of more recent offerings stop me from reading it. I was engrossed by the book and devoured the whole story in one day - admittedly with being bedbound there wasn't much else to do!
This is French's writing at it's strongest for me. Set recently but, in 1998, sufficiently long ago to not have iPhones, iPods, Skype and Twitter infiltrating it, French is able to do what they used to do so well - create (as is typical) a first-person narrative that conveys raw emotions, suspicion, fear, unease, growing familiarity and friendship, the trials of motherhood, all along with a slightly dark edge and a feeling of foreboding. They craft well, as they have before, a lead character who clearly has an awareness of their own flaws and a first-person return on how they deal, or don't deal, with their challenges.
Sam's relationship with Elsie is conveyed well, and Sam's concerns about the closeness between her and her daughter come across well without the idea being rammed down the reader's throat - probably a concern experienced by every single mother. As the story progresses we hear why her lover, Danny, feels kept at first an emotional, then a geographical distance, and what became of Elsie's real father.
Sam and Danny's relationship is conveyed in a more terse, basic manner; their time together is sporadic, their feelings for each other kept both under control and not openly admitted but undeniably present and keeping their infrequent, unconventional union together. At times they clearly offer each other a form of support and release that is certainly not all roses and candlelit suppers, but there nonetheless, and yet at other times they seem desperately badly aligned.
Other characters, such as damaged Fiona and Michael Daley, are also crafted well, and Elsie becomes an important glue between the adult characters in the plot.
Not wanting to elaborate on the plot aspects any further, I'll move on to my experience as the reader; I've already said that I enjoyed this and found it hard to put down. Not being a single mother, or sharing many things in common with Sam whatsoever in fact, the fact that she comes across so strongly to the reader is a credit to the writers. If I had a criticism at all I would say that some of the characters were too clichéd, but then to play devil's advocate these were often the very ones used to highlight the new social network into which Sam was finding herself a part of, and that in itself was an important part of the commentary in illustrating Sam's reaction and emotions in her new surroundings as she tries to help a young woman rebuild her life whilst often wondering if she had her own entirely under control.
As the plot develops I found what is a bold storyline executed well. The dark, ominous tone that runs through the entire narrative sets the tone well for the twist in the story, and whilst we may have little in common and she may not be the perfect stereotype of a woman, a mother or a doctor, instead keeping her own style and distance and being slightly non-conformist, I found myself to very much like Sam Laschen. There is undeniable passion in her relationship with Danny, and I found her natural overcoming of her original reluctance to be involved with Fiona to be both convincing and a natural progression. As the story unfolds, I read her suffer humiliation and anger and a grief that was so visceral it raised a tear or two of sympathy, and one overriding factor that is very well delivered is her desire as a mother to protect her daughter.
So, happily, I am able to deliver a positive review about the work of an author who has been responsible for a couple of other books from this genre that I have returned to more than once. I thoroughly recommend The Safe House and think this will be joining Beneath The Skin on my shelf amongst books that I will pick up again in a few years and revisit, and again so after that. Highly recommended for a dark winter's day, on the sofa in front of a roaring fire.
I've read a few novels written by Nicci French in the past and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them so I snapped up a copy of 'The Safe House' when I saw it in a charity shop. Her novels are generally quite intense thrillers - the literary version of films that make you jump at the slightest movement because the tension has been built up so much!Despite reading other work by this author, I only recently discovered that 'Nicci French' is actually a pseudonom for a husband and wife team, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Had I known this beforehand I might have been put off from reading their work, as I'm not a fan of collaborations. I can honestly say that this novel, as well as others I've read, show no signs of being disjointed whatsoever so somehow this writing partnership really seems to work!
The principal character of the Safe House is Samantha Laschen, a doctor who specialises in post-traumatic stress disorder. She is asked by the police to temporarily house a nineteen year old girl, Fiona (Finn) McKenzie whose parents have both been brutally murdered and who is believed to still be at risk. The back cover hints at the risks that Samantha and her young daughter, Elsie, are exposing themselves to by allowing this young woman into their home and lives.
From the outset of the novel, I found the writing compelling as it opens with the discovery of Finn's parents' bodies. I did find the idea that a totally unrelated random person would be approached by the police to house a murder victim to be a stretch of the imagination. In spite of Sam's medical qualification and experience in the trauma field, I really doubt that she would be asked to do this and was particularly sceptical that anyone would go along with the idea, particularly if they have a young child in the house. Nevertheless, I was more than happy to suspend my disbelief for the sake of a good story and this is certainly well written with elements of tension and emotion.
There are lots of sub-plots and secondary storylines within the story, aside from Sam caring for Finn. To be honest, I thought there was a little bit too much going on. The story considers Sam's on-off relationship with her partner, Danny which I found a little distracting from the thriller/murder mystery element which I was most interested in. I didn't really feel that their relationship was all that strong with both Sam and Danny appearing to be quite ambivalent to each other. I didn't really see the need for them to be quite so passionate towards each other either. In a Mills and Boon novel, I expect the characters to be panting and ripping off each other's clothes at every opportunity but it isn't really necessary in this sort of story. There was also another love interest included which didn't really add up either and left me feeling both annoyed and distracted. I also felt that the character of Finn wasn't given the depth that you'd expect, particularly in light of the ending of the book.
There are lots of twists and turns within the story, particularly towards the end of the story where the pace seems to hot up and lots of details and information are revealed in quick succession as everything falls into place. Lots of the twists had been fairly easy to deduce but there were other aspects of the story that I hadn't been able to predict beforehand and I was kept gripped right up until the end.
The ending is this novel's greatest weakness. Essentially, this is a novel based around a murder but, as a murder mystery, it didn't provide the great 'denouement' that I've come to expect. Perhaps I've become a bit conditioned to expect the great unveiling of the murderer and the facts, having spent many years reading Agatha Christie classics. I suspect that the rather open ending of this novel is supposed to leave a sense of eeriness and unease but I was just left feeling disappointed and a little deflated. The last section of the book just seemed to be going at such a fast pace and then it all builds up towards a great shocking conclusion...that just never happens. What a shame!
Despite the disappointing ending and some minor issues about the plot and characters, this is an enjoyable and captivating read. It's certainly not the best example of Nicci French's work, based on my own experience so far. For anybody new to her (their?) writing, I would recommend Killing Me Softly as a much better introduction.
First published 1998
Copies available on Amazon from 1p used and for £5.99 new
As I'm slowly reading my way through Nicci French's books, I was glad to find 'The Safe House' for a mere 50 pence on one of my many hospital visits in the local shop there. At such a bargain price would I find it as good as some of the others? Let's find out.
* The plot *
A brutal murder starts the first chapter - Leo MacKenzie and his wife are found dead in their own home - horribly mutilated. The housekeeper that finds them makes a further grim discovery - their daughter Fiona (Finn) is in her bed, taped up and bloody, and barely alive.
Severely traumatised after a long stint in hospital, Finn is sent to stay with Samantha Laschen, a doctor who specialises in post-traumatic stress. Sam has moved to the Essex coast with her young daughter Elsie, leaving London far behind and boyfriend, Danny, who comes and goes as he pleases. Finn is in need of refuge and, with a little push and a shove from the authorities above, Sam is asked to provide a safe house.
* Characters *
From the start Sam is a likeable character - the story is told in the first person and we quickly move into her life and her home and we can understand her reluctance at having a house guest when she is still getting used to a new routine and is about to start a new job. Sam is an unconventional heroine, described as lanky and with shaved bright red hair who cant cook and enjoys a game of chess. Her love for her daughter, Elsie, is evident throughout the book.
Finn is a quiet character, nervous and meek. We learn that she went from being an obese teenager to an anorexic in a short time. With Sam, she is silent and withdrawn and spends as little time as possible in the same room. Progress is slow but soon she lets down her guard and starts to interact, befriending Elsie first. She also refuses to attend her parents funeral. She begins to depend on Sam a little too much, her intensity becoming a burden and at the same time Danny starts to pull away, brooding. Soon, things start to go horribly wrong.
Sam arrives back one day to a note left by Danny - a goodbye note. Beside that is a note from Finn Its a madness, I know We couldnt live without each other. Their bodies are later found in a burnt out car - an apparent suicide. But the story is far from over.
* What I thought *
The book is easy to read - the first day I started it I read 100 pages. The chapters are usually less than 10 pages and also have frequent breaks enabling the reader to easily pick it up for just a few minutes or as long as you wish. I found I did read huge chunks at a time, eager to find out where the story was going.
For the most part, this doesnt read like a typical thriller. After the initial murders the story calms down to introduce the Finn character to her new environment and we get to learn more about Sam. I felt like this could be a red herring - give the reader a sense of stability and then hit them with the bad stuff.
Michael Daley, Finns doctor, also starts appearing at regular intervals to check on Finn but does he have feelings for Samantha? What exactly is his involvement with the MacKenzie family?
There are lots of twists and turns in this book - the last 100 pages are especially tense and gripping. However for those that are familiar with Nicci French books, this doesnt keep you on the edge of your seats as previous works such as The Red Room' have done (Mack got shut in the train so engrossed was she in that book!). In fact the beginning is rather slow and it only heats up towards the end even though by then weve kind of worked out whats happened. With French's books we know there are still some surprises to come and I haven't given too much away with the bare bones of the plot.
* Overall *
The story covers a range of emotions - grief, betrayal and love. The shock factor wades in around half way through the book as the reader is almost lulled into a false sense of security with the cozy surroundings Sam has made for herself. The betrayal of her lover and friend forces her to take drastic measures and find out what really happened. Finn still remains, in the most part, a mystery. Sam is determined to find the answers.
I did enjoy the story - I read it in three sittings because the writing does draw you in and the people are realistic up to a point. I had to ask myself how much influence would the police have over a young mother when trying to force her hand into taking into her home a complete stranger who is the target of a murderer?
So I am going to take one star off because I really didnt like the ending. Plus Sams one woman army to find the truth makes the police involved look *really* silly and that just didnt come across too well. I like to see the gal win and all but, to me, it wasnt a satisfactory conclusion and there were some events that were skimmed over, leaving me feeling a little cheated.
So to sum up. A taut psychological thriller with a plot which will keep you guessing up to the last page. Ive read a few books by Nicci French and have yet to be disappointed. Four stars and a recommendation from La Mack.
* About the author *
For those that dont already know, Nicci French is the pseudonym for a husband and wife team called Nicci Gerard and Sean French.
Other books include Killing Me Softly, The Memory Game, The Red Room, Beneath The Skin and her latest, Catch Me When I Fall.
* Extra info *
The RRP of this book is £5.99 but, like I said, I found it at a practically giveaway price, making this a real steal.
It's available on play.com for £5.49 with free delivery.
Thanks for reading.
I have read four books by Nicci French now, all of which I have enjoyed, although with varying degrees of enjoyment. I read this book immediately after having read another of her books, The Red Room and I think I would have benefited from giving Nicci French a rest before embarking on The Safe House. Nevertheless, I couldn't put it down and managed to whip through it in about three hours.
Nicci French is a pseudonym for a journalist and her journalist husband, Nicci Gerard and Sean French. Both have degrees in English Literature from Oxford University. They have worked for a number of newspapers and magazines between them, including the Observer, The New Statesman and The Sunday Times.
This book is about a doctor specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder, Samantha Laschen, who moves to the country with her small daughter Elsie, to escape the trials and tribulations of London. She has a job at the local hospital heading up a new trauma unit, due to begin in a few months, but is planning to take life easy, spend time with her daughter and write a book. Their tranquil life is interspersed with visits from Samantha's boyfriend in London, Danny, with whom she has an on/off relationship.
The tranquillity ends when Samantha is asked to provide a home (the safe house in the title) for a disturbed teenager, Finn, whose parents were brutally murdered while she was at home. Finn herself was stabbed. Samantha is unwilling at first, but finds it hard to say no. Finn arrives, clearly struggles for a couple of weeks and refuses to go to her parents' funeral, but grows slowly stronger thanks to Sam and Elsie, who grow to love and accept her. This cosy situation ends rather suddenly when Samantha finds a note from Finn and Danny, saying that they had fallen in love, couldn't live without one another and have run away to be together. They are later found shot in a burnt out car with a letter nearby claiming that they couldn't bear the pain they have caused Samantha and so have ended their lives.
But is it all that it seems? Without wanting to give away the storyline, this is only the beginning of the story and it does carry on at quite a frenetic rate until the end.
The portrayal of Samantha is excellent, as are descriptions of her relationship with her daughter and boyfriend. Although she is taken aback by the betrayal of Finn and Danny, she did have some doubts about their relationship beforehand, which does keep you interested. Other characters are sensitively portrayed, although kept vaguer, which is of course for a reason. Descriptions of the experiences trauma victims have could have been stronger, but nevertheless were effective enough. Finn's pain does come across, although is not dwelled on too much, again, as it happens, for a reason.
I would recommend any fans of crime fiction, especially authors such as Val McDermid and Minette Walters, to read this book. Nicci French is excellent at creating an atmosphere of foreboding. There is also a promise all the way through that something more is going to happen, that things are not as smooth and finished as they appear to be. This kept me gripped until the last few pages. Without a doubt, the book draws you in and makes you look over your shoulder.
At the same time, I do have a couple of niggles. One is that the story, for me, wasn't quite finished off, and there was no clear explanation of why the perpetrators did what they did. This may not be a niggle for everyone, I admit, some may like to be kept hanging in the air, but I like to have all my t's crossed and my i's dotted. This helps to keep a book more memorable for me, and as I read so much crime fiction, I can see that I will forget about this book quite quickly. The Red Room also had a similar problem.
My second niggle, again one that is repeated in The Red Room, is that the police are made out to be totally useless and that only the interference of Samantha leads to the (almost) successful completion of the case. As a criminologist, I am well aware that the police do not manage to solve a huge number of crimes and that those in the papers tend to be the handful that are solved. However, I find it hard to believe that hunches by a member of the public would be so accurate and indeed even taken on board by the police. Then again, without this, the story wouldn't have worked, so don't let this put you off reading the book.
The book is available from Amazon for £5.49 published by Penguin Books Ltd. 400 pages. ISBN: 0140270361
This review has been posted on other sites under the same login name.