When coupled with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins and her smash-hit debut, Girl on the Train, is responsible for one of the biggest trends in recent literary history since Twilight brought us every variety of paranormal romances imaginable and then some. But instead of werewolves and vampires banging, we got a glut of thrillers, most of which used “Girl” in the title.
However, her newest book, A Slow Fire Burning, has far more in common with her second novel, Into the Water, with the mystery being told by somewhat more reliable narrators—and a lot of them.
The book begins, as so many do, with a grisly murder: a young man, Daniel, has been found murdered on his houseboat. Miriam, a mousy fellow houseboat-dweller, discovers his body, along with a key she knows belongs to Laura, a troubled young woman who lives nearby. The body, Miram reports; the key, she pockets. But police make their way to Laura’s door soon enough, and between her history and her inability to keep from incriminating herself, she’s quickly their prime suspect.
This causes some difficulty for Irene, Laura’s elderly neighbor who relies on the girl to bring her groceries. Carla, whose sister used to be Irene’s next-door neighbor before a deadly fall down some stairs, fills in the gaps while Laura is detained. But Carla has secrets, as does her husband, Theo. And Carla’s sister was the dead man’s mother. Irene, an avid reader of cheap thrillers, starts to wonder if there’s more to both Daniel’s death and his mother’s. Meanwhile, Miriam sees Daniel’s murder as an opportunity to get a little justice herself.
It’s a lot of names, and it’s true that synopsis sounds more like a back-cover blurb than anything else. But Hawkins’ story quickly spirals out from those points in complicated ways that can’t be cleanly described. While this is a thriller and the mystery is ultimately at the heart of the story, what Hawkins seems to want to spend her time on most is the thorny lives of the people closest to the epicenter of Daniel’s death. There are lots of points of view in A Slow Fire Burning, but none belong to an investigator. There’s a little Miss Marple-ing going on, but that, too, is pushed somewhat to the side in favor of unspooling the tangled threads of each of the afore named characters (except Daniel, who is, of course, super dead).
This is successful in many ways. Irene is about the only “likable” character, I felt, though that could simply be Hawkins embracing the trope of the canny and caring old woman. Though brash, Laura’s inability to stop sabotaging herself makes her a tragic, though certainly imperfect, figure. Miriam’s sense of right and wrong—and justice and injustice—make her a fascinating dark horse as the story progresses. Theo and Carla tell two sides of the story of their young son’s death fifteen years before, and how that single tragedy pushed them apart in ways they could not have expected.
Yes, these characters are all connected to the mystery, but Daniel himself never takes center stage. Putting the collateral damage, and just what led to the point of the people surrounding the mystery to be involved in the first place, at the heart of the story was also Hawkins’ approach in Into the Water, but here it feels that she’s pushed that even farther. She serves us up character, not crime.
There are drawbacks to that narrative approach. With five POV characters, it’s a little difficult to gain traction with any of them to begin with, though I suppose that’s where the allure of crime comes in, until we surrender to the characters. It’s also a bit difficult to keep track of how their lives intersect until the answer is definitively revealed, and not all of the lives do end up intersecting beyond their connections to Daniel. The bits of the fictional novel Hawkins jabs in at the start of chapters also seems very disparate to the story until it is not, but (spoiler) it’s never fully tethered to the main story, anyway.
None of these criticisms are necessary for having a good time with A Slow Fire Burning, and overall it is a strong, if cerebral, thriller worth your time. But in those ways the book does live up to its title (get it? Like a slow burn? I’ll see myself out).