Cold to the Touch, By Frances Fyfield

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Frances Fyfield's position as one of Britain's premier crime writers did not shield her from some flak when she took her series character, ex-lawyer Sarah Fortune, into new territory: upmarket prostitution. What was Fyfield doing, outraged voices bayed? But those who doubted that an intelligent, articulate professional woman might turn to the oldest profession can study the latest revelations concerning the identity of Belle de Jour. Those of easily-ruffled sensibilities might be happier with the area into which Fyfield puts Sarah Fortune in Cold To The Touch, but it's hardly a more comfortable place.

Sarah is at a low ebb; on bad terms with both her mother and the man she is attracted to. Professionally, she is also at a loose end - and when she encounters the troubled Jessica Hurly on a cold London morning, she sees a woman whom she feels she can help and, in the process, improve her own life.

Sarah's new friend is convinced that her wreckage of a life can be rebuilt if she could only return to the village of her youth, but is unsure of the reception she will receive. Sarah travels to the cloistered village on the Downs to feel out the territory for Jessica (and, she hopes, find out why the latter has had to leave). But, inevitably, there are unpleasant revelations in store.

The very name of the Hurly family results in a rapid hoisting-up of drawbridges, and suddenly Sarah finds that she is unable to contact Jessica. What has happened to her? And how much danger is Sarah herself now in? A grim answer may lie in the centuries-old meat market of Smithfield in London.

Fyfield is always unerringly skilful at probing the troubled waters of human relationships – and we are never far away from the presence of death. But Fyfield always anchors her narratives with the strong-willed (but up-against-it) presence of her heroine, and Sarah Fortune is the perfect conduit for our journey into fraught regions.

The central metaphor here (the eponymous "coldness to the touch") is the butcher's shop. And when a body is discovered in the butcher's in the secluded village, the stage is set for a descent into fear and alienation of the kind that is Fyfield's stock-in-trade. Keenly evoked locales (the village, the antiseptic market halls) are perfect settings for the dark and minatory happenings.

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