Review: The Burning, by Jane Casey

>>Published (UK): November 2010

>>Published (North America): September 2011

I whipped around, pivoting on one foot, and as I moved I sensed rather than saw something cutting through the air, aiming for my head. I wasn’t conscious of feeling any pain when the blow landed, just a dizzying sensation of utter weakness. I knew that I had to keep moving, I had to get away, but my legs wouldn’t carry me and someone was still shouting, shouting at me, shouting my name. I fumbled for the CS spray and felt it slide out of my hand, clattering to the path and now the pain was coming, as if from a long way off, and I was aware of more blows landing, and pain bloomed along the side of my head, and I fell to my knees, thinking that I should do something, thinking that my parents would be so disappointed in me, thinking that Ian had been right, thinking that Rob would be furious. I’d wanted to do better. I’d hoped to do better. The world was receding but my thoughts kept spinning irrationally as the ground came up to meet me and my cheek hit it and I opened my eyes to see a boot swinging towards my face and that was the thing, in the end, that just

made everything

stop.

***

Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan isn’t content to slip into the background, to be overshadowed by her male peers. The ambitious protagonist of Jane Casey’s North American debut, The Burning, must contend with parents that fear for her safety and decry her chosen career, a boyfriend who grows more distant with each phone call that pulls Maeve into the field at three in the morning, the frequent lack of faith in her abilities exhibited by her superiors, and a murderer who’s taken to setting fire to four young London women. When a fifth body turns up, Maeve inserts herself into the victim’s circle of family and friends, to learn as much about her as possible. What she discovers casts doubt on whether the fifth victim was murdered by the same person, a serial killer dubbed the Burning Man, or if Rebecca Haworth was killed by someone else altogether.

Part police procedural, part psychological drama, The Burning is a highly readable, though not altogether original mystery. Split 70/30 between two voices, Maeve, and Rebecca Haworth’s best friend, Louise North, Casey takes the interesting approach of shuttling the serial killer mystery to the background, using it as impetus for exploring Maeve’s character in greater detail—the reasons for her ambition, the distance felt in her personal life, and the somewhat oppressive nature of some of her peers as she attempts to overcome their obvious sexism. Maeve herself is an interesting enough character, though she does feel pieced together from parts of other mystery protagonists over the years: the ambitious young detective desperate to make her mark, removing herself from those that care and worry about her… none of these elements are particularly unique to Casey’s writing, but she handles them with confidence and ease.

Louise North, on the other hand, is given less room to breathe. As interesting a device as the split narrative can be, Casey writes from Louise’s perspective with less assurance, cobbling her perceived personality together from extraneous sources in a manner that removes some of the mystery surrounding the character. Without giving anything away, the Louise sections of each chapter tipped a hat to certain details too soon. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that had the perspective remained with Maeve for the entirety of the book, several key elements of the mystery would have been less obvious and more widely distributed amongst the many suspects in both Rebecca Haworth’s murder and the larger hunt for the Burning Man.

Casey’s writing is simple and to the point—she doesn’t waste time with extraneous details or sidetracks from the plot. The narrative is lean, direct, and has an excellent pace to it. In fact, the only place I would say the pacing falters is at the very end, when we are treated to an unfortunate information dump as the final chapter. This was disappointing, as up to this point Casey had done a terrific job of feeding the reader just enough to cull together the various plot threads on our own. However, in the eleventh hour, she opts for the obvious approach and offers a blow-by-blow account of the killer’s machinations. The frustration in this is that she’s telling us what happened, when there was more than enough already shown as to make this an unnecessary step. It reads as if, at the very end, the author was uncertain whether or not the details of her killer’s mind and rationale were obvious enough for the average reader. The tragedy in this is that it tackles the otherwise quick pace of the plot and pulls it to its knees.

Mild frustrations aside, The Burning is an exciting thriller that introduces an interesting new character in Maeve, and I suspect we’ll be seeing her again before too long. Casey’s control over a mystery is strong, and I’d like to see what she can do with a more mature hand and increased confidence in her readers.

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