Among her myriad literary skills, Frances Fyfield is adept at creating blood-chilling psychopaths. Like her American predecessor Patricia Highsmith, she takes us deep into their twisted psychology. Highsmith refused to condemn the violent behaviour of her characters, and without a hint of irony once pointed out that Tom Ripley only kills people who get in his way. Fyfield's books – while just as disturbing – show that she is able to maintain a cool-headed distance from her protagonists.
Fyfield's monsters are very often men who perpetrate the most appalling violence against women – such as Rick Boyd in Blood from Stone, a violent serial predator. But Fyfield addicts know that she avoids a Manichaean feminist view of male-female relationships: as in her The Art of Drowning, the awful men on display here are matched by some almost equally awful women.
In this book, the awful woman is the successful barrister Marianne Shearer, who often helps her grateful clients to evade justice. One such is Rick Boyd; it is her unsparing courtroom browbeating of one of his victims that has allowed him to walk free. To her dismay, Marianne finds that, after his acquittal, her unpleasant client has sought her out to admit he is guilty of the crime – and Marianne is suddenly vulnerable herself.
Then she is dead: seemingly a suicide, by falling from the window of a hotel. In the wake of her death, her tenacious ex-colleague Peter Friel tries to find out what made this enigmatic woman tick. Henrietta, the sister of one of Boyd's victims, finds herself caught up in the shock waves emanating from Marianne's death.
Henrietta is a seamstress, which allows Fyfield to move into some interesting territory. Marianne, when she fell to her death, was dressed in the most elaborate clothes (and underwear); and the mystery of her wardrobe becomes both an important plot point and a provocative metaphor. The stripping of layers to reveal a naked truth is de rigueur for crime novels, but the notion is rigorously worked out here; the haute couture motif is not just window dressing.
Splendid though Blood from Stone is, it doesn't equal The Art of Drowning in its strip mining of psychopathological excess. And the trial transcripts showing Marianne's treatment of witnesses seem excessive. One has to assume that Fyfield, a criminal lawyer, knows better than the reader that such behaviour would be permitted in an English courtroom.
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