Safer Than Houses by Frances Fyfield

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The Independent Culture

I once worked for a firm of solicitors, which had an old tin marked "pounce". Sadly, this turned out to be ground pumice for rubbing parchment, and in my experience the legal life was every bit as dusty. But Frances Fyfield's series heroine, Sarah Fortune, is a criminal lawyer who now enlivens her forensic expertise with well-paid bouts of sexual generosity toward favoured clients. She is rewarded by inheriting a London flat conveyed through a grateful associate.

His relict turns out to be a magnificent character, a merry widow celebrating the wonders of gin, who sails through the story imparting exuberant vitality to various tense and unhappy creatures who inhabit this novel. The flat has a mysterious feature, a "safe room". Safe from what? Among other perils is the bitterly resentful son of Sarah's benefactor, a psychopath pursuing her with deadly enmity.

In a complex, interlinking plot, Sarah encounters Henry, a mild-mannered art lover terrorised by a sinister neighbour. Fyfield has terrific skill in suggesting the depth of cruelty which surfaces as the apparently minor mistreatment of any weak creature. One ends up gripped with fear for the fate of a budgie.

The paths of Sarah and Henry interweave when they swap living quarters. Also embroiled in their twists and turns is one of Sarah's sexual clients, a dodgy drifter with whom she has nonetheless established a real relationship. He is faced with an inner conflict between self-interest and loyalty, bringing depth of feeling to an elegant piece of classic crime-fiction plotting.

As elsewhere in Fyfield's work, there is a sense of elemental force lurking in the background, ready to assault the characters. Here it is fire. The reader's nerves are stretched to breaking point as Fyfield tells us how easy it is to start a fire, how quickly it can spread, how it can kill in minutes. It is impossible to put the book down before we know who will be burnt to a crisp.

Safer than Houses is a deeply satisfying read in which powerfully drawn characters and compelling tension take us over a rather perilous coincidence, which might threaten to undermine credibility. For Sarah Fortune fans, the long-term question is how her career will develop. Which of her professions will she follow? The final sequence, in which she is eyed up by a roguish judge, suggests there will be a good deal more pouncing than pounce for Miss Fortune.

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