James addresses domestic violence and the insidious threat of stalking in a novel that veers between an obsessed, spurned lover—currently operating under the name of Bryce Laurent—and the object of his fantasies, flame-haired Red Westwood. Though the affair begins in mutual passion, it quickly sours for Red when her mother hires a private detective, his investigation exposing most of Bryce’s claims as lies. With a resume padded with half-truths and a generous wallet, Bryce has gradually seduced Red into a relationship built on a network of clever fabrications. A disingenuous lover gathers considerable skills along the way, from knowledge of private security systems to the specifics of fire containment as well as a talent for magic tricks, particularly those using fire as a distraction. In all, he’s a nasty piece of work.
By the time Bryce is ready to lay siege to his victim, Red believes the affair long ended, having returned his personal belongings and any gifts he has given her in a final gesture. About to begin a new career as a real estate agent, Red has determined not to be a victim of this man any longer. On the advice of a domestic abuse counselor, she has moved to a safer apartment but refuses to curtail her life, unwilling to remain in the role of a classic victim fearful of moving past a painful experience.
Set in Brighton, England, the deadly series of dominoes begins to fall with the sudden death of a widower physician found burned to death on a golf course soon after he plays in a charity tournament, his demise at first deemed a suicide. Assessing the case with his team of detectives, Detective Sergeant Roy Grace of the Surrey and Sutton Major Crimes Team is not quite ready to sign off yet, nagged by a suspicion that this agonizing death might really be a homicide. As in the real world of crime investigation, disparate pieces come together only gradually. Laurent is well into his mission before any connection is made with Red Westwood and a suspect who sets fire to create the most dramatic—and deadly—damage possible.
The culprit’s reach is long, his crafty mind always a few steps ahead of a team working with few solid clues, their only certainty that Red is the center of this particular path of destruction and that everything in her life is at risk. Besides this frustrating and escalating case, Grace is preparing to wed the mother of his child, his former wife, Sandy, finally declared dead after years of fruitless searches. This is an ongoing back-story that threads from one Roy Grace novel to the next, including the reappearance of his nemesis, Chief Superintendant Cassian Pewe, who will soon begin a position as Grace’s supervisor. From past experience, Grace knows better than to trust the seemingly friendly overtures of a man who once tried to convict him of murdering the missing Sandy. In any case, Grace has his hands full with an active case and an impending wedding, unaware that not only Red but his detectives are in the crosshairs of a man it has so far been impossible to locate.
Red Westwood casts the role of intended murder victim with equal parts bravura and stark raving terror, assuming herself safely locked in an apartment that cannot be breached and indulging in a surfeit of wine to blunt her fear, often putting herself unnecessarily at risk (and unable to think objectively). Her stubborn resistance, combined with fear, serves to dilute the plot: Red predictably walks into every scenario set up by her stalker. While her bravery is admirable, it isn’t practical or even sane considering the circumstances. And there are a few too many issues regarding modern technology that are not sufficiently accommodated in the investigation, the police likely more savvy about Laurent’s ability to track his prey than
the author credits. The cat-and-mouse chase continues (the novel quite long) until a final confrontation that too easily wraps up loose ends.