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'UNDERCURRENTS' Crime novel shares method of masters



Published: Sun, September 16, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The mystery relies on a patient unraveling of character and psychology.

By ROB STOUT

SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR

& quot;Undercurrents, & quot; by Frances Fyfield (Viking, $23.95).

Like its suggestive title, Frances Fyfield's 14th novel is a compelling, layered piece of work that relies on the undertow of thwarted passion to carry its clever plot and cast of characters toward a startling discovery.

Henry Evans, a shy, poetry-loving American pharmacist, travels to the stormy English sea town of Warbling in search of Francesca Chisholm, an enchanting young woman he met 20 years before while backpacking in India.

After settling in to a campy bed and breakfast filled with the usual cast of Fyfield eccentrics, Henry begins his search only to find by accident that Francesca is serving a life sentence for murdering her 5-year old son by pushing him through a broken plank at the far end of the town's fishing pier.

Change in style: Suffering a near physical and mental breakdown, Henry rebounds to discover the true circumstances of the child's death. This is a marked departure for Fyfield, who has relied on an exclusively female cast of protagonists for her past work.

Although she confessed to the murder, Henry resolves to discover how the gentle person he once loved could be capable of such an act. Aided by her dubious cousin, Maggie, he brings together those closest to Francesca at the time of the incident: Angela, her best friend; ex-husband Neil, whose history of abuse was well known; and Maggie herself, who represented Francesca at the trial.

While meandering and unorthodox in his sleuthing, Henry also manages to speak to some of the townspeople, each with a different theory, but harboring in their memories something dark and unspeakable to an outsider. "No one so far had spoken of the child with love," he notes in a more insightful moment.

At mid-point, this Chinese box mystery begins to reveal itself ever so slowly. Fyfield also places excerpts from Francesca's prison poetry at the beginning of several chapters. The device plants the last seeds of culpability that remain in place until the very end, when the murderer is finally revealed.

British barrister: Fyfield, a British barrister, musters her evidence in a way so that events fall into place in a logical progression for the reader, just at a more leisurely pace than the usual fast-paced crime fiction. Like much of her previous work, & quot;Undercurrents & quot; relies on a patient unraveling of character and psychology over forensic evidence and investigative procedure to solve its mystery.

Readers of such past masters of this method, such as Patricia Highsmith and P.D. James, will find much to savor in this roundabout but stimulating piece of contemporary crime fiction.




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