Scaredy-cat with big dog

FULL STOP by Joan Smith, Chatto pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
ALONE in an apartment in New York, during a heatwave, with only a vast, slobbery four-legged friend - "concentric circles of bulging doggy fat" - for unwelcome company. What's more, this canine monster which Loretta Lawson is babysitting turns out not to be the only heavy breather around. From the beginning of this tense and terrifying story, our intrepid brainy feminist and amateur sleuth has her ideas about self-sufficiency and how to look after herself severely tested.

First there are the telephone calls. "Michael" seems to be a friend of Toni's, the friend whose apartment Loretta has borrowed, so she doesn't want to seem rude, at first; when things get more serious, she confides in the nice police Lieutenant who - almost unbelievably - rings her back in response to her complaints to the police department and the telephone company. Then there is Loretta's powerful sense of being watched, shadowed around the city by a presence she half glimpses, half senses. What's even worse is that she feels she recognises him, somehow, obscurely: when she tries to explain to someone in the city what's happening, she gets cold comfort: "According to what I read, more often than not it turns out to be someone you know. Someone you worked with, an ex-boyfriend, even the guy who fills your car with gasoline."

Loretta's love life is in its usual becalmed condition; again as usual, her ex-husband, sometime Dr Watson and intermittent friend John Tracey is on the scene. This time, though, John's own rather mysterious preoccupations seem to rule him out as a source of sympathy and support; in fact, he even floats into the category of suspect. Their lives are still interlinked, especially by the aftershocks of one of Loretta's other "cases" (a wink to Lawson aficionados); the past seems to be catching up on all sides.

When the chilling denouement comes, we realise that the apparently complex web of the narrative has been spun over a simple set of truths - truths about modern city life (of which New York contains the best and the worst), and truths about the irreducible facts of female vulnerability to male predation. These latter realities are hard for feminists to cope with - they threaten to blow the whole thing apart, after all - and it is brave of Joan Smith to set them at the heart of her most truly frightening, and truest, book to date.

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