Written by Alex Kava — A down-and-out former accountant returns to his cardboard box home in an industrial unit on the edge of Washington DC. He is furious to find that there is someone else in his space. His anger turns to horror when he finds that this intruder is very, very dead. Within seconds, his confusion becomes a nightmare as a smiling man appears beside the dumpster with a can of gasoline. And a box of matches.
This is – literally – the explosive beginning to the 10th Maggie O’Dell mystery. Maggie has her own professional and personal demons to fight, and her past is never very far away. She attempts to find out why someone is setting fires in and around Washington, and why there appears to be a sinister connection to someone close to her. Maggie’s own fitness to work is under question from her box-ticker of a boss, and with only her FBI partner RJ Tully remaining supportive and non-judgmental, she wades through a sea of conflicting evidence, helped and hindered by the abrasive DC Detective, Julia Racine, and her enigmatic half-brother, Patrick Murphy.
Maggie’s attempts to make sense of the tangle of contradictions, preconceived ideas, complacency and apathy surrounding the work of the murderous arsonist are intriguing. She is not easily fooled, and yet her own psychological vulnerability is both a hurdle to be overcome and, at the same time, a valuable weapon. She is angered by the persistence of local TV news reporter Jeffery Cole, and his determination to put her at the centre of the story further weakens the fragile relationship between Maggie and her mother. Cole’s camerawoman, Samantha Ramirez, becomes dangerously involved in the story when she sees something in the footage of one of the crime scenes that might bring the investigators closer to the truth.
The writing is taut and polished, and the plot is well-woven, with uncertainties and suspicions hovering over the main characters which keep the reader interested. The forensic background is meticulously researched, and there is enough detail about what extreme heat can do to the human body to make the fire-fighting aspect of the story convincing.
When a series gets to its 10th installment then the author is certainly doing many things right, but the downside is that the narrative must contain more and more backstory to explain to new readers how Maggie O’Dell has got to where she is now, and why she behaves the way she does. To be fair, Maggie’s personal file is opened fully to us, but without interrupting the thrust of the story. I found the ending less than satisfactory. Yes, we do find out who has set the fires, but not really through any endeavours of Maggie or PJ, and the enigma presented in the final pages was more irritating than menacing. Despite these caveats I think that Fireproof is a thoroughly competent and well-paced novel which is entertaining without being too demanding, or asking many questions about the real nature of good and evil.
CFL rating: 3 stars