Watching the detectives

Susanna Moore has described it as ``a little bit of porno''. The critics have talked of a new Jean Rhys. Sarah Spankie tests a sassy thriller; In the Cut by Susanna Moore Picador, pounds 12.99

Frannie, the narrator of Susanna Moore's fourth novel, In the Cut, is aroused by risk. "I don't usually go to a bar with one of my students," she announces, "It is almost always a mistake." But Cornelius, a faintly disturbing character who attends her creative writing class, is having trouble with irony. He wants to see her about his term paper and they duly go to the Red Turtle to discuss it. As it turns out, Frannie is right: this is not a good move. It is the first in a series of small acts of recklessness, moments of defiance, where our protagonist fails to respect conventional boundaries and ends up in trouble.

Searching for the bathroom at the Red Turtle, Frannie blunders into a basement room where she observes a red-haired woman performing oral sex on a man. Frannie can't see his face, which is in shadow, but she knows that he can see hers. She notices a tattoo - the three of spades - on the inside of his left wrist. She also notices that the redhead's technique ("with a hitch of the chin like a dog nuzzling his master's hand") is quite different from her own. Later, the woman is discovered with her throat cut and her body disarticulated.

The novel tracks the relationship between Frannie and James Malloy, the homicide detective who is investigating the murder. In Frannie, Moore has created a striking and memorable heroine: intelligent, brave, watchful and sexually adventurous. On the surface, her life seems painfully circumscribed: she is 34, lives alone in two rooms on the third floor of a brownstone on Washington Square, teaches teenagers "of what is called low achievement and high intelligence" and is writing a book about regionalisms and dialects "including the eccentricities of pronunciation". She has no trouble with irony.

One of her projects is a dictionary of New York street slang, the street being the place where everything happens - music, drug deals, language, danger. Her dictionary is fluid, as the phrases enjoy only a brief currency, and mean one thing in Brooklyn and something different in the Bronx, but, for Frannie, "the words themselves - in their wit, exuberance, mistakenness and violence - are thrilling to me". We learn a number of colourful terms for sex and guns, and for body parts, including several for the vagina: "virginia, n., (as in "he penetrated my virginia with a hammer") snapper n., brasole n., (from the Sicilian? bresaola? cured meat?)"

The title of the novel is in this sequence, "In the cut. From vagina. A place to hide. To hedge your bet. But someplace safe, someplace free from harm." Through her passion for language, Frannie attempts to impose order on the loose squalor of her surroundings, to connect herself to something or someone, but, like her friend Pauline, she has no romantic expectations, no domestic dreams.

Yet for all her cool independence, she cannot quite ignore "the old longing to be chosen, pursued, fought for, called away". Spinsterhood is a spectre: "I hope I don't turn into Miss Burgess in her good Donegal tweed suit, her snappish red terrier at heel, the dog's own tweed coat beginning to fray where it rubbed against his tartan leash. Summers in Maine with her companion Miss Gerrold in a cottage fragrant with mould. It doesn't seem that bad, now that I'm imagining it."

Sketching on the rocks seems an improbable destiny for a woman who can fall for Detective Malloy ("Cops go through girlfriends like they go through veal cutlets," he warns her), flirt with his partner Rodriguez ("All you really need is two tits, a hole and a heartbeat," he muses), and be seduced by the macho crudity of their cop culture.

"I reminded myself that Pauline says they have to despise us in order to come near us, in order to overcome their terrible fear of us. She has some very romantic ideas. I tried hard, but there must have been something a little pinched in my face, a momentary faltering, because Rodriguez said to me,"You're one of those broads, right? You know, man, one of those feminist broads." Working a lot of gender into one sentence."

As she embarks on a risky liaison with Malloy (their sexual encounters are described in breathtakingly graphic detail), Frannie wilfully neglects to attend to the warning signs - the erratic behaviour of her friend John Graham, the stalking activities of her student Cornelius, her lover's tattoo - although she keeps a list, of course, in her head, on the edge of consciousness.

Moore has written a brilliant, pacy, intense, erotic thriller, packed with beautifully observed detail, humming with melancholy. Like Frannie, the reader will find no solace. The ending is horrifyingly gruesome, so harrowing, that Brett Easton Ellis, no boy scout, said it was the most shocking thing he'd ever read.

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