Gold Digger, By Frances Fyfield


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The Independent Culture

What is a crime writer to do when they start to chafe at the restraints of the genre? How to re-energise the overfamiliar elements – such as the careful concealment of the murderer’s identity?

It's a conundrum that Frances Fyfield cracked some time ago — and her solution is a particularly satisfying one. Fyfield simply writes a novel of character, in which fully realised protagonists are developed with a skill approaching that of such writers as Iris Murdoch. And when crimes start to be committed, we don’t notice a shift in gear.

Those skills are at full stretch in the unimaginatively titled Gold Digger. In a British seaside town, there is an unlikely alliance — the barely socialised teenage burglar Di and one of her victims, the elderly and well-heeled Thomas Porteous. Despite her attempts to steal from him, a strange and surprisingly warm relationship grows up between the two in the teeth of the town’s tongue-clucking disapproval (the usual conclusions about a very young woman living as a housekeeper in a rich older man's home swiftly drawn). But Thomas has spotted something in Di: a capacity for human warmth which he suspects can save her from her blighted past. And there is something else – she has an almost preternatural understanding of fine art (of which Thomas has an impressive collection). The couple marry – but there is a fly in the ointment: Thomas’s resentful family who despise the cuckoo in the nest. And when Thomas dies, his daughters descend like vultures to pick the house’s valuable contents clean. But Di is a survivor, and draws about her some fellow outsiders; the battle lines are drawn.

As ever with Fyfield, the liveliness and range of her characters is a key factor, with both the elfin Di and the saturnine Thomas (the latter is a particularly sympathetic creation, and his departure from the novel is something the reader regrets). The battle of wits between the young widow and Thomas’s venal relatives takes centre stage with thoroughly engrossing results. Uncharitable readers may decide that the parallels with King Lear are little too pointed (Thomas’s disposing of his estate, his deeply unsympathetic daughters – a latter-day Goneril and Regan — and Di, a council estate Cordelia), but such is the author's psychological acuity that most will not worry. Her understanding of the way human beings behave when jealousy and resentment power their actions remains as insightful as ever; Fyfield has lost none of her skills.