Written by Karen Sandler — Exhibit A Books has got off to a flying start with a series of almost high-concept adrenaline-packed thrillers which build towards action-packed finales. At Crime Fiction Lover we have reviewed Penance, Hard Road, and The Cambodian Book of the Dead. Clean Burn promises to be something different though, with less emphasis on big action, and more on character, with the stakes smaller, but more personal. Let’s see if it delivers.
Janelle Watkins is a tough, street smart San Francisco private investigator. Personal demons and bad choices got her off the force and things aren’t any better now. But aren’t all PIs troubled characters? Their hearts are in the right place but they have a problem with authority, and the bottle? Well, Sandler has taken the time and effort to make her protagonist different, and it pays off in spades. Watkins was a cop, who with her partner Ken Heinz had success particularly in child abduction cases. Their affair, however, put his marriage under pressure, and forced him to choose between his job and his wife. So he left to work as a County Sheriff in Greenville, Watkins’ home town. Watkins left the force after a rookie put a bullet in her calf by accident, leaving her not fit to go out on the streets, and not able to face the prospect of a desk job.
If an affair with Heinz was her bad choice, her demons came from her father. An alcoholic and an abuser, if little Janelle didn’t bring his beer on time, or spilled any, he would burn her with the tip of his cigarette. Escaping Greenville hasn’t meant escaping her past and her own unhealthy fascination with fire. Sometimes she ignites matches just to see how the pretty flames seem to dance. But sometimes she lights them to burn herself. Her PI work isn’t so rewarding that she can afford to turn any down, and reluctantly she takes on two missing child cases which at first don’t seem to be related. However a pattern begins to reveal itself. Fires were set where the kids were snatched, and further digging suggests the abductors are a couple on the move, and the last sighting of them was in Greenville. If Watkins wants to crack the case, and save the kids, she’s going to have to go back home and face up to Ken and her own childhood. To what extent will her understanding of the arsonist’s mind-set help her or push her over the edge?
Sandler’s rendering of the main character, Watkins, is impressive. The portrayal of mental illness is often hackneyed and sensationalised, but here it is credible and consistent. Watkins is not a disabled cliché, but a highly competent adult who manages to function whilst struggling with her own difficulties. She recognises the morbidity of her compulsions and manages to control them, just. Watkins is a highly engaging creation, and there will plenty of room for exploration when the series progresses. The narrative progresses from the viewpoint of Watkins, top that of one of the abducted children, and on to the terrifying Mama. Our antagonist’s psychosis is driven by personal disaster and a warped religion. The different viewpoints proves very effective in delivering momentum to the story. This is the author’s first attempt at crime fiction, and what a debut. I can’t wait for more.
Clean Burn is out 5 September.
CFL Rating: 5 stars