Ebury, November 2010 (paperback).
Part police-procedural and part psychological suspense, The Burning is a very good crime novel. From the cover words, one would think that this book is about a serial killer who is attacking young women walking home late at night in south London, and burning them. Although this plot description would usually put me off reading a book, my experience of the author’s previous (debut) novel, The Missing, encouraged me to buy The Burning, and I’m glad I did as the serial killer element is very much a side-issue.
DC Maeve Kerrigan is part of the team working on the case of the murdered women. She’s called out at 3 a.m. one day when it is thought that the killer has been caught in the act. Simultaneously with the discovery that this is not true, the body of a young woman is found – presumed the fifth victim. Maeve and the head of the task force, DI Godley, have their doubts based on some differences in the fifth case from the previous four, so Maeve finds herself assigned to a 'sideline' investigation into the fifth murder. Godley wants to keep the possibility that there may be two killers within his squad and away from the media until he is sure one way or the other.
Maeve is a competent detective plagued by petty sexism and racism (she’s Irish) that never reaches the level of justifiying a complaint, but which is corrosive and unsettling for her. At the same time, she’s impulsively moved in two months earlier with Ian, a banker, and their relationship is not working out, to put it mildly.
Despite her personal insecurities, Maeve pursues her investigation into the “fifth” case with professional vigour, which involves investigating friends, family and ex-colleagues of the dead woman. Most of the book is told from her point of view, but the chapters in Maeve’s voice are interspersed with short entries by Louise, the dead girl’s best friend. By these means, we gradually build up a picture of the woman and her life, as Maeve closes in on what must have happened.
Matters come to a head one night when the police, including Maeve, take part in a large undercover operation. Maeve, with the help of her sympathetic colleague Rob and DI Godley, works out the truth by a combination of deductive reasoning and instinct – but of course, not before she herself is endangered.
This novel is both readable and impressive. Although its context is that of the search for the serial killer, the author is much more interested in the life of the fifth victim and how her death came about, so rather than dominating the novel with clichéd accounts of murders, the serial-killer case is tangential to the main event – constantly threatening and creating pressure on the police team, yet insubstantial rather than in the foreground. In my opinion, this makes the novel both stronger and distinctive. Although the solution to the “fifth” mystery is not much of a surprise, it certainly has impact, due to the reader’s involvement in the characters, particularly Maeve –a determined and attractive protagonist whom I hope to meet again one day.