Written by Kate Medina — Back in 2015, when Kate Medina was known as KT Medina and had just released her debut novel White Crocodile. We had already tagged her as one of the Six women to watch for in 2016. Sure enough, she doesn’t disappoint with her psychological thriller Fire Damage, which marks the start of a new crime series featuring psychologist Dr Jessie Flynn.
The book is mainly set on and around army facilities in Surrey, rather than the exotic Cambodia seen in White Crocodile, and the author uses her army experience wisely. This is as much a story about a child’s psychological trauma and a mysterious Shadowman, as it is about Afghanistan, post traumatic stress and veteran rehabilitation.
Jessie Flynn is a psychologist working with the Defence Psychology Service of the British Army. She becomes involved in the case of four-year-old Sami Scott, who seems deeply traumatised since the return of his father, a major with the Intelligence Corps, from Afghanistan. Is this simply because his father suffered serious burns and is almost unrecognisable physically? Jessie suspects there is something not quite right about the family, but they prove very reluctant to allow themselves to be ‘treated’ as a unit.
Meanwhile, a former patient of Jessie’s, Captain Ben Callan, is now a special investigator with the Military Police. He asks for her help in investigating a suspicious death in Afghanistan. The suspect, a fellow officer, is insolent and refuses to talk. When a dead boy washes up on a beach in Sussex, it becomes clear that Ben and Jessie’s cases are somehow related. But is it ethical or reliable to ask a haunted, unpredictable four-year-old for clues?
The book offers an insight into a world little known to most of us: crimes investigated within the army’s own ranks. I worried initially if the armed forces could provide enough diversity of experience to sustain a longer series, but then again the TV series NCIS has been around for a while. You don’t need to know too much about how the forces operate to enjoy the story, and it is handled with great realism and without the excessive use of cover-ups and conspiracy theory which sometimes mar such storylines.
What the author has handled particularly well is that she has made this not so much a novel about an institution, but about individual people, and in particular a small child who tugs at your heartstrings and a family who is puzzled and powerless to help. The author’s psychological training also comes to the fore, as there are plenty of damaged, traumatised characters in the book, including Jessie herself. There is a danger that this could descend into a sorrow-fest, but, in spite of the challenging subject matter, the characters remain well-rounded and plausible. It is not an easy read, however, and not suitable for those looking for a pleasant mystery to while away a few hours.
If you think this sounds too much like doom and gloom, rest assured that there are a few scenes which help to lighten the grim atmosphere during the investigation. Jessie’s nosey neighbour, the widower Ahmose, is a delight, and Jessie’s musical preference for James Blunt adds some humour to her often tense interactions with Ben Callan. Overall, however, it is a serious look at what happens when the political and the personal overlap. Despite some repetitive elements and a rather melodramatic ending, this is a great start to what promises to become an intriguing series.
Fire Damage is released 24 March. For more heart-rending psychological crime fiction, try The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars