A Clear Conscience

The line “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” echoes through Frances Fyfield’s A CLEAR CONSCIENCE. Many things appear to be in need of fixing. Helen West’s preoccupation at first is with her home, which she decides to redecorate. Her home is comfortable and slightly dirty, with appliances that do not quite work; it is a metaphor for her life and her longtime relationship with Superintendent Bailey. Fyfield has featured both characters and their unusual relationship in several of her novels.

In her quest to spruce up her home, West hires cleaning woman Cath Boyce, who soon confides in West that her husband beats her. In the meantime, Bailey investigates the murder of Damien Flood in what appears to have been an ambush by a group of pool players whose money Flood had won earlier in the evening. When West and Bailey realize that Flood is in fact Boyce’s brother, they begin to share facts, and the cases become mixed.

The story belongs primarily to Boyce, painted sympathetically as a battered wife who loves her husband and has resigned herself to her fate. She is convinced that no one else would want her, in part because of a large scar on her stomach resulting from a cesarean section performed while she was a teenager. Her husband, Joe, is a petty man with limited aspirations, jealous of his wife’s relationship with her brother Damien Flood, even though Flood had gotten Joe his job.

As Bailey investigates Flood’s murder, evidence accumulates pointing to Joe Boyce as the culprit. Scenes smoothly blend to show the Boyces’ evolving relationship, as Cath leaves Joe and then decides to go back to him; Bailey’s investigation of the murder; and West’s attempts to help Cath. Fyfield offers several surprises in resolving the various conflicts of the story. West is left contemplating the major parts of her life, including her relationship with Bailey, her job, and the criminal justice system in general; she wonders what is in fact broken and how she could or should fix it.