Without Consent

Frances Fyfield, Author Viking Books $21.95 (260p) ISBN 978-0-670-87682-2

Never less than fine (Shadow Play) and often spectacular (The Playroom), Fyfield, whether she writes as Fyfield or as Francis Hegarty, is an astute crime plotter and a crafty observer of the subtle nuances that permeate middle-class English mores. Here, she's in top form. As her two series characters--prosecutor Helen West and her lover, high-ranking London policeman Geoffrey Bailey--move uneasily toward matrimony, a rapist is plaguing London. The main suspect is detective sergeant Ryan, who's not only a fellow cop of Bailey's but his protege. Ryan is not an especially likable man, and his past is murky. His most recent investigations involved a series of rape accusations by apparently confused women, and it's not at all clear whether or not the crimes actually occurred. Two of the women were pregnant and died mysteriously. Then Ryan's accuser dies. Meanwhile, a bald doctor pervades the narrative: oddly celibate and ever sympathetic, he has beautiful brown eyes and wears synthetic clothes that leave no residue of foreign particles after physical contact. The doctor visits with troubled women, bearing flowers and chocolates. Fyfield treads into dangerously murky territory, exploring the blurry lines between emotional and physical assault and the confusing legal and moral definitions of rape. West and Bailey may be put through too many emotional hoops, but Fyfield proves herself to be among those rare crime writers (Ruth Rendell is another) who can address provocative topics with intelligent ambiguity. (Nov.)