A Slow Burning Fire

By Paula Hawkins

Publisher/Year: Penguin/2021

Publisher description:

‘What is wrong with you?’

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Innocent or guilty, everyone is damaged. Some are damaged enough to kill.

Look what you started.

Reviewer: Dinah Gregory

As a fan of Hawkins’ previous two books, this one is my new favourite. It feels like Hawkins has used her time with The Girl on the Train and Into the Water to hone her skills and the product is this perfectly paced mystery. Using the book within a book method similarly used in Into the Water, Hawkins uses the stories of two of the main characters, one which has been published and one that has been stolen. The slow but deliberate revealing of how the characters’ stories all intertwine is masterfully done and uses suspense and different narrators so that the reader gets what feels like the whole story, eventually.

The character of Laura, as referenced in a recent interview with Sisters in Crime interviewer Sue Turnball, is delightful. She is one of those characters that I missed after finishing the book. She has an acquired brain injury which lands her in some bad situations, but she also has been neglected by both her parents in her childhood and continues to be in her young adulthood. The relationship between Laura and Irene, her elderly friend who she does errands for and genuinely cares for, is truly lovely. The looping around of the victim being revealed as more of an abuser and/or killer adds an element of surprise as well as the notion of children being inherently ‘bad’ or even ‘evil’. All of the characters are sympathetic, with the possible exception of the murder victim, and this makes the whole book an emotional ride. There are aspects of them that are less than perfect, and some downright abhorrent, yet they all have some redeemable quality. A sigh of relief is sighed at the end when we know that they are all okay. Still broken, still cracked, and some imprisoned, but all okay, relatively.

The beginning of the book is tricky. If I had not heard Paula Hawkins read the prologue, I would have been rolling my eyes and muttering with exasperation, much like Irene does. This introduction of the book within a book sets us up nicely to be on our toes and not presume anything. We are then treated to pages from Alistair’s published bestseller, and Miriam’s unpublished, purloined memoir. The discussion of using women’s pain and suffering as entertainment is subtle but runs throughout the whole novel. Another thing that struck me about this was that it doesn’t try too hard to make a twist. The ending makes perfect sense, is surprising, but we are led there by Hawkins’ well-rounded characters.

I find myself weary of too many twists in mystery novels, often at the expense of plot, characterisation, and depth. A Slow Fire Burning is written with care and offers catharsis without everything ending perfectly. We see the characters all travel through the story in their own ways, with their own demons, and are left with the satisfaction of a well-told tale, while still being a little wistful for absolutes in some cases.