8 FEBRUARY 2003, Page 31

The hunter hunted

Harriet Waugh

LAND OF THE LIVING by Nicci French Michael Joseph, 116.99, pp. 320, ISBN 0718145186 Abbie Devereaux, the heroine of Land of the Living, finds herself hooded and bound and a prisoner of a man who is just a whispering voice. She has a violent headache and cannot remember anything about how she has come to be lying on concrete in this damp, smelly place, or even anything leading up to her present situation. The man, who feeds her four spoonfuls of bland gluck daily and pulls down her trousers and puts her shuffling, handcuffed body onto a bucket once a day for her to relieve herself, smells of onions and dirt. He makes it plain that once she is sufficiently broken he will kill her, He does not rape or fondle her.

We have all been there in fiction too many times before. Luckily for us, Abbie escapes and the rest of the novel begins. It is not until her escape that we learn anything much about her, and what we learn comes slowly. Abbie lies in hospital. Her friends and her boyfriend do not come to see her. She rings her parents, but in the face of their self-regard fails to tell them of her ordeal. The police, initially sympathetic, become wary after interviewing her boss, her friends and her boyfriend. The psychiatrist thinks she is a hysterical fantasist. When a furious Abbie storms out of the hospital and goes to see her friends, boss and boyfriend she begins to understand their scepticism. In those missing days before she was kidnapped she had been behaving with uncharacteristic brio. She also discovers she has had unprotected sex with someone who was not her boyfriend. She is terrified by the void in her life and the possibility that the unknown man might still be after her. The novel is about her increasingly frantic attempts to fill the gap in her life and her paranoiac terror as she hunts the kidnapper, who she has reason to believe is a serial killer, This is a taut thriller and for the most part a good detective novel. Abbie is a slightly tiresome woman who all too easily behaves in an over-spontaneous, hysterical manner. I like my heroines a bit dryer and less orientated towards beer, but that might be a generational thing. However, from the moment Abbie escapes the novel never loses pace or interest There are a couple of times (to do with the use of mobiles) where it loses credibility, but for the most part the reader is right with Abbie, seeing with her eyes and ears (and, rather reluctantly, her sensibility) as she gradually disinters her missing past and the possible links that led to her capture. Not all Nicci French's novels are as satisfying as this one. In fact, Land of the Living is one her most enjoyable.