Friday, May 17, 2024

The Book You Have to Read:
“Shadows on the Mirror,” by Frances Fyfield

(Editor’s note: This is the 183rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Peter Handel
Over the years, the dedicated crime-fiction reader encounters a number of memorable female protagonists. Everyone has their own list; my (inexhaustive) one would include quirky characters such as M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin; Lynda La Plante’s legendary DCI Tennyson; any number of women anchoring the wonderful novels of Ruth Rendell; Janet Evanovitch’s whack-job, Stephanie Plum; Laurie R. King’s compelling, if rather a stretch, Mary Russell … and the list goes on.

But I have never come across a character so unusual, so distinctive as British novelist Frances Fyfield’s (née Hegarty) bored slacker (practically), London barrister Sarah Fortune.

Shadows on the Mirror (1989), the first entry in a five-book series with Fortune (she later reappears in another series, the Diana Porteous books, and a 2009 standalone, Cold to the Touch), introduces us to the lawyer, a recent widow, who has, shall we say, an offbeat sideline. “I’m a tart,” [she] says to herself, “Tart with heart.”

But let’s back up. We first meet Sarah at a dull party she wishes she were not attending, where the “star” of the gathering—and many previous ones—is an obese, neurotic Crown Prosecutor, Malcolm Cook. “In the courtroom, Malcolm … was a man of charisma, compassion and great forensic skill, a gentle giant with powerful weapons,” the author explains. “Everywhere else he was regarded as a perfect clown.”

As the faux-enjoyable party drags on interminably, Malcolm, the exploited drawing card, performs his expected “comedic” role (those self-deprecating fat guys can be so funny!). Sarah observes the man from a distance: “[She] watched him closely, wondering if she was wrong to sense a kindred spirit, another outsider like herself, being used on a hostess ego-trip, someone who had arrived for dinner as an alternative to loneliness.”
The man needed intravenous confidence, something to make him love himself. “I know what you need,” Sarah told herself, “…and I should like to provide it, by way of experiment.” Not a whole cure, but a start perhaps.
Sarah invites herself home from the party with Malcolm—she needs coffee—and eyes his flat: “A man’s womanly touch, clearly distinguishable from a woman’s touch, existed in the kind of austere comfort produced. Small and tidy, the lair of an isolated creature who exerted rigid control over his life, dared not encourage visitors for the contrasts of their departures, and clung to his home for the rock of peace it offered.”

She’s more than intrigued about this lonely, gentle giant: “[S]he had been drawn to his loneliness and knew she would not leave it untouched.” She asks him direct questions, a bit like the lawyer she is: “‘Why do you let them use you like that?’ Malcolm replies, ‘I exist to be a jester, he said slowly. ‘What else can I do?’”

As their conversation deepens into the wounded psyche of this corpulent man, and his utterly traumatic past experiences with women, Sarah tries to alter his perspective. But, “‘Look at me,’ cries Malcolm, ‘I’m disgusting. I’m the object of revulsion in half the human race, and I can’t even blame them.’”

“‘I’m looking,’ she said. ‘I’ve been looking all the time.’ And I like outsiders like me, she added to herself. They make me feel at home.’”

Finally, the seduction begins:
Miraculously naked, flesh upon flesh, tingling and weightless, aware and ashamed, stunned into agonizing life, he wanted her to stop, but never stop, helpless with wanting, conscious of warmth, enveloping affection, rhythmic movement of his hips against her own until the dim light of the room faded in the mounting wave of sensation. Hold me, Sarah, hold me please, I can’t help it, don’t stop.
Eventually, Malcolm Cook wakes up, alone, only to find a note from Sarah. Encouragement expressed at him, post-coitus, but also including this: “Please don’t try and find me; you must change yourself, or it will not count for anything. Besides, you’re on the way up, and I’m definitely on the way down. Just love yourself as much as I did. I shan’t ever forget you.”

Malcolm remains a prominent character throughout this story. The self-driven personal transformation he undergoes leads him to hope that somehow he will reconnect with Sarah … if only he can find her.

Malcolm’s stepfather, who manages the law firm (where Sarah is bored beyond belief and does as little actual work as possible), and his mother also play roles in the novel’s plot, as do both Sarah’s sour, newly separated secretary and her sleazy ex, a disgraced former cop.

The firm’s most important—feared and reviled—client is a rich businessman, Charles Tysall. A predator in all ways, from business takeovers and layoffs to his vile treatment of women. He’s also recently become a widower, and the circumstances around that fact are addressed in the prologue. It’s not pretty.

In countless crime novels from the UK, a long line of the Tysall man exists. It’s a prominent trope, this seemingly untouchable, utterly amoral type, well-connected to their rarified class protections, charismatic yet vile, and rotten to the misogynist core of their wretched souls.

A sadistic streak—de rigueur. Here’s Tysall waiting for Maria, his regular call girl: “Charles sipped the Sancerre, not waiting for Maria, simply expecting her. When the entry phone buzzed from the street he did not rise, but pressed the electric device by his chair, and sipped another mouthful. She would sense the nature of his mood from the fact that the door was not locked and he did not rise to greet her.”

Here's Tysall a few moments later:
She … ran her fingers across his fat belly, listening to his even breathing as she lay with her face against his chest. … He did not kiss her. Instead he fondled her neck, and pushed her head downwards. Without further prompting, she obeyed, one hand kneading the inside of one thigh while her mouth found her target, crouched above it, held in small fingers as she began a delicate circular motion with her tongue, slowly then quicker, waiting for the imperceptible signs which would show his pleasure. … As the sensation grew, he arched further, felt her pull back, pulled her head down savagely by the hair. And held it there, silently, throughout his own climax, and her choking, panicking struggle.
Fyfield adroitly moves her charges through a plot that heads just where we would expect: It is, naturally, Sarah’s fate to be initially stalked, then aggressively, stridently, pursued by Charles Tysall. Not her fault that she is practically a double for Tysall’s late wife (who’s simply regarded as “missing”). Lithe, with flaming red hair, she embodies both a sense of perfection and the ideal candidate for his next conquest.

(Left) Author Frances Fyfield.

While Sarah has a coterie of men to whom she “ministers,” she does not want Tysall to be one of them. She enjoys such fellows she nicknames as “Hurried Hugo,” the “Ticker” (bad heart, counts in his sleep), and “Henry Hypochondria” (who “knew hugging was good for his health”). Her time spent in and out of their company is altogether well ordered:
So far, she was committed to two mornings, two lunchtimes and three evenings a week. Her bank balance was healthy, there was a beginning of an escape route from the hatred of work, and even if her sense of humour and her energy was under strain, life was still tenable. … She was not good at collecting fees, tended to forget to collect them. Fun and money, never mind law, sex and secrecy, all made for different, attractive combinations, suitable for an outsider who had ceased to care.
Once Tysall wants her, though, the game becomes unlike any she has experienced. One day she comes home, and guess who’s waiting?
He was behind her, grabbing the thick hair in the same moment she had turned to run.

“Don’t scream,” he said. “There’s no point in screaming and I detest women screaming.”

Sarah stood still and did not scream. She clenched her hands by her side to stop the trembling, mastered it slowly while he waited, holding her so close she could feel the buckle of his belt pressed into the small of her back, close as any lover, but holding in his hands two fistfuls of hair.
What follows is a finale with classic Grand Guignol overtones … involving a broken mirror, a dog’s slashed neck, and a battle which would be almost madcap, were it not so bloody.

The sadism, both overt (Tysall) and nuanced (that tedious party) permeating Shadows on the Mirror is undeniable.

This book can be read in several different ways, including as a feminist story of an independent, sex-positive woman, or simply a fabulously literary crime yarn.

Still with us at age 75, Frances Fyfield has written a wide range of novels, all with crime stories at their heart. She is, I think, rather under-appreciated in the United States. She deserves a higher profile in the crime-fiction pantheon.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Have enjoyed her books over the years. Well-written and believable.