As we all know from the numerous times we’ve been accused of murder, trying to prove your innocence isn’t always easy. So you can imagine how hard it would be if you had to do it while in jail…and if you were a liar. Such is the situation Tabitha finds herself in House Of Correction (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), a new psychological thriller by Nicci French, the nom de plume of the husband-and-wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. In the following email interview, “Nicci French” discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, as well as how they work well together.
Photo Credit: Johnny Ring
To begin, what is House Of Correction about, and when and where is it set?
The story begins with Tabitha Hardy, a woman of thirty, in a prison in the south west of England, charged with murder. She is accused of killing a neighbor in the small north Devon where she lives, a man who was a former school teacher.
Matters quickly get worse: it emerges she has lied both to the police and to her own lawyer about her history of mental illness and about her relationship to the victim. She is quickly abandoned by everyone and at this point, at rock bottom, she has to try to solve the crime from inside prison, inside her own head.
Where did you get the idea for House Of Correction, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
The seed of a novel can often be surprisingly simple. For House Of Correction we just thought of a woman having to solve a crime from inside prison. We liked the idea of having to do the investigation without being able to go to scene, track down witnesses and so on. But as often happens, once we started writing the character of Tabitha — who starts at rock bottom and has to find a way of surviving — the book really became about her journey. She became such a forceful character that she took the story over as she fought her way out of the darkness into some kind of light.
It sounds like House Of Correction is a bit of a murder mystery. Is that how you’d describe it?
There’s no getting away from it: there’s been a murder, Tabitha has been accused of it, and she has to defend herself. Of course, there’s a tension between the kind of book we’re writing and the legal process. In the British legal system — just like the U.S. system — Tabitha doesn’t need to find the killer, she doesn’t even need to prove her innocence. She just needs to cast enough doubt on the prosecution’s case. But that’s not enough for Tabitha…and the reader. We need to know. We need to understand. We try to explore this tension.
Incidentally, and more specifically, this story is also a “locked room mystery” that happens to take place in the open air. It seems impossible that anyone apart from Tabitha could have committed this murder. So who did?
Now, while you two have written numerous novels as Nicci French, you’ve also written a bunch on your own. How do you decide what you’ll write on your own and what you’ll write together?
Nicci French is a very particular writer with her own imagination, her own subject matter. We spend a lot of our time talking about possible ideas for her: would this make a novel? Could we use this character, this situation? When we write on our own, we have very different kinds of ideas — different from Nicci French and different from each other. So any idea has to be the kind of subject that Nicci French is interested in, and also something that both of us are passionate enough about to want to live with for a year. That’s quite a high bar.
So then what was it about House Of Correction that made you think it should be a Nicci French novel?
Over the years we’ve written very different Nicci French books. But if they have something in common, perhaps it’s a sense that in ordinary life we are always just a couple of steps away from everything going wrong. We are always on thin ice. We write psychological thrillers and the “psychology” is as important as the “thriller.” House Of Correction is a story of a woman accused of a murder. But it’s also a story of a woman whose life has gone wrong, who has suffered a psychological collapse. If that happens to us — and it’s something we can all identify with — how do we find out way back? What does it take?
Have you ever considered writing books as Sean Gerrard, maybe even in a completely different genre?
That’s a very good question and something we have absolutely thought about. As it happens, we’ve just been thinking about a story that is a kind of thriller, but more of a spy thriller. It’s not the sort of thing that Nicci French is interested in, so if we write it, it may well be the first Sean Gerrard novel.
House Of Correction is not the first book you’ve written as Nicci French. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a big influence on House Of Correction but not on any of your previous Nicci French novels?
It’s always difficult to talk about influences. As we said earlier, we were slightly inspired by the “locked room” genre, a highly artificial kind of crime story in which a murder is committed in a locked room with seemingly no way in or out. John Dickson Carr specialized in them, but there are many others. We wanted to write a version of that but in an entirely realistic setting.
What about non-literary influences; was House Of Correction influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Of course, we’re constantly aware of many movies and TV dramas set in prisons, like The Shawshank Redemption or Orange Is The New Black and many, many others. But we reacted to this mainly in a negative way. We wanted to avoid the familiar tropes of this subject, the stabbings in the showers and so on. We’ve been in prisons — as visitors rather than inmates — and wanted to convey what a British prison is really like.
Finally, if someone enjoys House Of Correction, which of your other Nicci French novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
That’s like asking us to choose between our children!
Curious readers might enjoy one of our early books, Beneath The Skin. Readers have told us that that is one of the most viscerally frightening of our books. We set out to do something that, as a first-person narrator, you’re not allowed to do. But we did it anyway. We won’t say any more.