15 MAY 2004, Page 64

The cad with the toothbrush technique

Harriet Waugh

SECRET SMILE by Nicci French Michael Joseph, £16.99, pp. 320, ISBN 0718145194 0 f Nicci French's six novels three deal with the subjugation of women by an aberrant man. Now the seventh tips the scale by making four out of seven. At least in the last novel, The Land of the Living, and in Secret Smile the heroines do not knuckle under; but one cannot help wondering whose fantasies — worst fear for women or a de Sade-style inclination in men — the husband and wife team that is Nicci French is addressing. 1 would guess that it is mostly women who read the novels, as they have yet to have a male protagonist.

Miranda, the heroine of Secret Smile, is a nice girl in the building trade. Pretty, a bit dusty and paint-spattered, she meets her nemesis on a skating-rink. Casually attracted, she goes out with Brendon a couple of times, has sex in a flat with him another two times and is disconcerted when his toothbrush appears beside hers. Then, coming back from work one day, she finds that he has let himself into her flat, made himself a cup of tea and is lying cosily on the sofa reading her teenage diary. She orders him out, is relieved that the episode is over and gets on with her life in a natural and agreeable way. A fortnight later her sister Kerry rings to ask if they might meet as she has some news.

Surprise, surprise, she is greeted by Brendon and a beaming sister. True love has struck. They plan to get married. What a coincidence that this should have happened! An anxious Kerry hopes that Miranda isn't annoyed that she and Brendon have fallen in love so soon after it hadn't worked out for Miranda. The family assumes that Miranda is suffering from wounded pride when she claims that what happened between her and Brendon hardly amounted to an affair and in any case she had been the one to end it.

This, however, is a fraction of what the squeezy, friendly, smily Brendon has in store for Miranda. As paranoia engulfs her she learns that you do not tell Brendon to get out of your life without serious repercussions, sometimes fatal to those you love. As usual the police are given a drubbing, but maybe that goes with the territory of heroines up against it with nowhere to turn.

Miranda is likeable and intelligent, and doesn't gratuitously endanger herself, unlike some previous heroines. Instead the tension rises naturally out of the situation. She also lives within the proper context of family and friends who become part of the problem. In The Land of the Living the heroine appeared to live in unlikely isolation and behave in a tiresomely irrational manner. Altogether, this is one of Nicci French's most enjoyable novels.