Book Review: A Slow Burning Fire by Paula Hawkins

TL;DR – when Daniel Sutherland is found murdered on his narrowboat in Regent’s Canal, North London, the locals are naturally shocked. Those linked to Daniel and those who were last to see him alive are all interviewed by detectives. What is uncovered is a history of family tragedy and how preconceptions can lead to false assumptions of just who holds the power to the truth.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Laura makes bad choices. The latest involving hooking up with Daniel Sutherland who is later found murdered in his narrowboat and she becomes the primary suspect.

Miriam lives on a narrowboat next to Daniel and witnesses Laura, blood on her face, limping away on the towpath. People see Miriam as a hermit, an old spinster, who sticks her nose in other people’s business. She is the one who finds Daniel’s body.

Carla is Daniel’s aunt. Divorced to Theo with a history of tragedy. First she lost her three year old son, Ben, then her sister Angela (Daniel’s mother) dies in a horrible accident, and now her nephew Daniel has been murdered. She is haunted by her past, can barely function in the present, and does not know how to look forward to the future.

Theo is a somewhat successful author. His novel – The One Who Got Away – achieved success but has received controversy as well as a claim by Miriam that Theo based key events in the novel on a memoir she wrote and shared with him. Theo, like his ex-wife Carla, has never managed to move on from the death of his son.

Irene lives next door to Angela, an eighty year old widower who never managed to have children of her own. She has her own personal demons and remembers quite well the arguments Angela and Daniel used to have, which carried through paper thin walls of their neighboring homes.

Questions of who killed Daniel and why leads to uncovering truths about the past, both horrifying and tragic for all those who had links direct and indirect with Daniel.

Review

A Slow Fire Burning is Paula Hawkins third novel published in the mystery thriller genre and examines the effects of neglect and the assumptions people have of others by their appearance and mannerisms.

Hawkins does an admirable job in depicting a cast of characters that are all deeply flawed in some way. On the surface, these flaws are unlikeable as opposed to interesting. I was in danger of losing empathy with practically all the main characters in this novel.

Generally, characters must have flaws in some manner otherwise the story will be dead boring. It is neither believable nor interesting when a character is perfect. Flaws create layers and demonstrate humanity that allows a reader to connect and become invested in that character’s plight. But Hawkins dares to create a bunch of characters that are all unsavoury in a way that will make you feel you don’t care what happens to them.

However, Hawkins manages to walk this tightrope and slowly reveal that there are deep seeded reasons to their behaviour. Not all of them pleasant but at least understandable, and you can see why they act the way that they do.

A Slow Fire Burning is not so much a mystery thriller as it is an examination of how the seeming powerless seize power, and the method by which they do so is not always altruistic or just. In fact, for many, it is power for selfish reasons only.

Surprisingly, what helps carry the story is the main detective, DI Barker, which one of the main characters, Laura, calls “Egg” because he has a head shaped like a cue ball and is completely bald. Barker is intelligent (not Sherlock Holmes intelligent but smart enough at his job) and he exhibits a level of empathy that was needed in this story.

The mistake that the main characters make when they interact with each other is judging who they are and what they are like from their appearance and external habits. Even Theo and Carla who were previously married and have a deeper understanding make false assumptions about each other. The reasons for these assumptions lead to igniting the slow burn to obtain power or revenge or justice (depending on whose eyes you look through) and stems from complex and tragic past events experienced by each of them.

Barker, on the other hand, is not burdened by their past. He was not part of any of the tragedies experienced by each of them. At the same time, he’s not presumptuous nor a cold-hearted fact finder focused only on the evidence to determine Daniel’s murderer. He is as human as the rest of the cast even if he is not so deeply flawed. Hawkins wisely uses him sparingly, but when he appears, he enhances the story and thankfully brings another dimension of humanity that is usually missing from law enforcement characters in these types of stories (unless the law enforcement officer is a main character, they are usually relegated to the background to indicate a crime is being investigated). Barker is a supporting character but is not left as a plot device in a crime mystery to indicate that the police are doing something. His interactions with Laura are particularly well done.

For the most of it, I found this book to be reasonably compelling, but one plot device is used near the end that deflated my enjoyment. The device is used on Miriam to allow progression of the plot between her and Theo. Unfortunately, the device is too convenient. It was like Hawkins was not sure how to put out one particular slow burning fire that was occurring between Miriam and Theo, so she threw in a series of last-minute scenes that would explain it and lead to a resolution between the two. I found it far-fetched because Hawkins does not give any hint that this is going to happen. She just inserts it at the end of a chapter, and you’ll be asking yourself, “Who the hell is this character? Why does she suddenly mention him after 32 chapters?” The remaining seven chapters plus epilogue explain the sudden appearance of this character, but it is all too coincidental and convenient. A shame really because the rest of it is decent read.

2.5 out of 5.

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