A Slow Fire Burning

Written by Paula Hawkins

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

A Slow Fire Burning
RRP: £20
Released: August 31 2021

Violence explodes with the first line as “Blood-sodden, the girl staggers into the black”. This is the stuff of innumerable third-rate thrillers, and “utter drivel” says Laura, the real, and really troubled girl as she tosses the tattered novel back on the charity bookshelf.

Caught by character and hooked by style we cut to Laura at home in her squalid tower block bleeding from a deep cut. She’s in a bad way: apparently a self-harmer, evidently a thief, probably a prostitute and a junkie. Her family want nothing to do with her, her last customer turned on her viciously – which was why she stole his watch. That was a big mistake because next morning he’s found dead on his narrowboat, his throat cut, and Laura was seen on the tow path at dawn, drenched in blood. She’s already known to the police who scarcely need a trail to lead them to her flat and the purloined watch.

The detectives, a man and a woman, are neither kind nor sadistic, they are a good team, ostensibly neutral: steady cops playing it by the book, sympathy skin-deep, empathy at zero. Laura confesses to everything: the sex, the man’s abuse, a fight - but not murder. He was alive when she left the boat.

So often in this novel there are echoes of third-rate plots; we’ve heard it all before – and then there’s a twist and the situation is not banal at all. These people are real, the action startling, and the prose comes at you like bullets.

The plot is simple, implicit in the title: the slow burn of vengeance: motivation as old as sex, but these characters imbue the theme with originality by way of their interactions; even their setting is skewed, familiar but not quite: a leafy backwater by London’s Regent’s Canal.

There are six people involved. All become suspects. When the initial obfuscations have been worked through (and only sleep can prevent this novel from being read in one sitting) the reader is forced to consider which of the five women and one man is capable of slitting a person’s throat.

The youngest, Laura, evokes sympathy; crippled, spurned, neurotic, foul-mouthed and strangely innocent, she is befriended by Miriam: fat and fiftyish, a free spirit living on another narrowboat, and the neighbour who saw the girl leave the victim’s boat in the dawn.

Hawkins favours the aged, their flaws and strengths and unconditional love.  Another, Irene, is in her eighties: an old dog happy to learn new tricks like the intricacies of her smart phone. She’s perceptive, accepting that her memory is fading but well aware that Laura pockets the odd tenner from her handbag when the girl delivers her groceries. Irene says nothing, she is Mother Superior to this child in a godless world.

The man in the story is Theo, a successful crime writer. He fits like a glove in the literary background: the best-seller in the nice house with the beautiful clever wife, with the fans, the awkward fan, the accusation of plagiarism…. His wife, Carla, is a snob with more than a streak of cruelty: a domineering woman unlike her sister, Angela, a divorcee, an alcoholic and the battered, embittered mother of Daniel, a graphic novelist and the man murdered on the narrowboat.

One of the six is the killer but which one, and why? Onion skins.  Under the hints and mysteries engendered by glimpses of past lives and current confrontations, intermittently enlightened or obstructed by the detectives, something unpleasant is working its way to the surface. Questions proliferate. A girl was violated? Who? By whom? A child died. How?

Chaos starts to be resolved by yet more surprises; tangled relationships unravel, power and cunning are manifest in the most unlikely places and a neat crescendo leads to a shocking but appropriate finale.  A Slow Fire Burning is that rare achievement: the work of a craftsman that will delight the layman as much as it will fascinate and thrill the established crime writer.

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