Are Two Heads Better Than One?

The split between Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes prompted endless debate about the pressures experienced by couples who work together. But one pair for whom collaboration has proved remarkably successful is Nicci French – or rather, the husband and wife team of Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. Their latest novel, Complicity, is another harmoniously constructed psychological thriller that forces you to keep reading to discover not only what happens next, but what has already happened.

As usual, the story is told in the first person by a young woman – this time Bonnie Graham, a music teacher. She is in a friend’s flat, accompanied by the body of a dead man – but who is the corpse, and how and why did he die? With the help of a friend, Bonnie embarks on an elaborate plan to dispose of the deceased, and as the story unfolds, we learn of the events that led up to the murder, as well as the consequences of Bonnie’s attempted cover-up.

It is hard to believe that such an intricate novel could be written by two people, far less that they write alternate chapters. Yet that, apparently, is the Nicci French method – and it has proved extraordinarily successful. Nor are they alone. Writing a novel is a highly personal, intimate experience, you’d think, and yet it turns out that a long list of novels are the product of collaboration.

Ellery Queen, one of the most popular American writers of the Golden Age of detective fiction, was a pseudonym concealing the identities of two cousins, Manfred Lee and Fred Dannay. Typically, Dannay devised plots of fiendish complexity, which Lee then wrote up. The French duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (both of whom had established successful solo careers before they began to collaborate) had a comparable M.O. – Boileau was the plotsmith, while Narcejac focused on atmosphere and characterisation. Their writing was so vivid that it proved to be perfect for film-makers such as Chabrol and Hitchcock: Les Diaboliques and Vertigo are the most celebrated of a long list of movies based on novels by Boileau-Narcejac.

Hitchcock’s Spellbound was based on a book written by another duo – Hilary Saint George Saunders (great name!) and John Palmer – who combined as Francis Beeding. Starting in 1940, two Hampshire neighbours, Adelaide Manning and Cyril Coles, produced a long line of spy thrillers under the name of Manning Coles. Even the legendary Dorothy L.Sayers wrote The Documents in the Case with the assistance of Robert Eustace, an expert in scientific murder methods who also collaborated with L.T. Meade and Edgar Jepson.

The names of Q.Patrick, Jonathan Stagge and Patrick Quentin mask the most complex collaborative writing arrangement I’ve heard of. Richard Webb wrote a book together with Martha Kelly under the Q.Patrick by-line, and when Kelly married, he joined up with a fellow Englishman, Hugh Wheeler, using all three pseudonyms. When Webb succumbed to ill-health, Wheeler produced the books on his own, before turning his hand to writing books for musicals such as A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd.

Coming up to date, there are plenty of crime-writing partnerships as well as Nicci French, even if you don’t count the James Patterson production line or the late Dick Francis’s collaboration with his son Felix (and, earlier, his wife Mary.) Charles Todd is a mother and son pairng, P.J.Tracy a mother and daughter team, and The Mulgray Twins are self-explanatory. Across the Channel, the Claude Izner name is utilised by two sisters who write a lively series of historical mysteries such as Murder on the Eiffel Tower, featuring bookseller Victor Legris.

Writing is supposed to be a solitary occupation, but this collaboration lark is so popular and successful, there really must be something in it. As for me, I once wrote a book called The Lazarus Widow with a dead man – but that’s another story.

(This article first appeared at