Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Novel of Two Halves: Until it's Over by Nicci French

The experience of  discussing this book with members of my local crime reading group made me realise the importance of structure.  I go to see so many plays and films where the aim is to keep the reader guessing, so it's important.

In the first half of Until it's Over the reader learns about a  group  who share a house in North London. One of the four men bought the house while he was at university and then let off rooms to fellow students. Years have gone by and they are still together, mostly established in their careers. There are a couple of newcomers.

Astrid,  her late twenties, is a bit of a drifter who began working as a bicycle courier after a gap year. She's had a few failed romances and  a couple of  casual sexual encounters with one of the  other housemates, a sleazy photographer called Owen.  Then, within a few weeks, she's linked to  three separate murders. In addition, the landlord's new fiancee says she wants all the tenants to leave before she moves in.

I'd read two quite riveting novels by Nicci French - a portmanteau name for the team efforts of married journalists Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. Maybe that's one reason why  I took a more favourable attitude than other members of the library crime reading group. I arrived five minutes into the discussion, so was surprised that the hostility was already established.

It's what usually happens - people say straightaway whether or not they like a book and then justify their opinions, which opens up a discussion about plot,  characters and style.

The first, and main, objection concerned the structure.  It's truly a book of two halves, with an unexpected  switch in the point of view at the place where most crime  novel sag : in the middle.  There's a  sudden increase in the level  of interest, as the reader sees things from the murderer's point of view.

Someone said it's a common feature of crime novels - practised, for instance, by Val McDermid, or Ruth Rendell, but in those  the change of viewpoint happens in alternating chapters, not as a sudden switch half way through. 'We're just going over the same ground all over again,' someone said.

While that's true, there was quite a bit of satisfaction, for me at least, in having questions answered. Most importantly, I found out why Astrid had been present at the crime scenes  - accidently the first time - and why, in the end, the murderer had it in for her as well.

There's a lot more to object to - not least the slightly bizarre situation of seven people all living together in the same house for no reason other than they're too apathetic to move. It's true that accommodation in London is expensive, of course, someone conceded. People often have to live with their parents until their thirties. Again, they all seem to get on so well; they don't even have locks on their  doors. Maybe that's how things are in North London, said someone else. It's true there are two many poorly described characters, so we can't even remember who they are when they're mentioned again in the second half.

I think I was so bowled over by the structure, that I was prepared to overlook a lot. But  I had to agree that the denouemement, which made most people laugh because it was so unlikely,  stretched even my credulity.

So, sadly,  not up to the standard of The Red Room and Killing me Softly.

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