What Fire Brings by Rachel Howzell Hall

3 Mins read
What Fire Brings by Rachel Howzell Hall front cover

From the first pages of Rachel Howzell Hall’s new psychological thriller, What Fire Brings, Bailey Meadows puts herself in a situation fraught with deception. This young black woman has finagled a writing internship with noted thriller author Jack Beckham, but she isn’t a writer. She’s secretly working toward obtaining her private investigator’s license, and is using this undercover assignment to bank the required on-the-job training hours. Her real aim is to find out what happened to a woman named Sam who disappeared near Beckham’s Topanga Canyon property.

Topanga is a famously bohemian community in the Santa Monica mountains west of Los Angeles where hilly terrain and dense tree cover make it seem remote and wild. It’s criss-crossed by hiking trails, some sketchy characters hide out there, and a person who gets lost may never be found. Thanks to Hall’s deft descriptions, the Canyon, with its one road in and one road out, becomes another potentially dangerous character in the story.

From her first visit to Beckham’s home, Bailey is in trouble. She misses its obscure driveway and nearly crashes her car. Fortunately, she’s rescued by a security guard who guides her to the Beckham estate. When she agrees to the terms of the internship, she takes up residence at a cottage on the property.

This story is told entirely from Bailey’s point of view. If you’ve read other works by Rachel Howzell Hall, notably her debut, Land of Shadows, you won’t be surprised that Bailey’s narrative is somewhat fractured. It’s as if she is in the middle of some sort of existential crisis. Living in two worlds wears on her, making her easily distracted – not the best headspace for conducting an investigation.

There’s lots not to like about her situation. Bailey doesn’t like it that Luann, the cook, enters her locked cottage while she’s sleeping. She likes it even less that she’s seen the security guard skulking around the property. Nor does she like accidentally learning that Jack’s wife died mysteriously. And he’s not the only character who seems to be something other than what he pretends. Bailey’s heightening anxiety is an appropriate response, but nearly paralyzes her. Jack Beckham recognises there’s something off about Bailey, but heʼs oddly willing to put up with it, claiming to value the potential literary freshness he expects from their collaboration.

On a hike in the canyon, they see a fire in the distance – too far away to pose any risk to the Beckham property… or is it? The possibility of fire escalates Bailey’s anxiety with the one road in, one road out situation. Jack takes her to visit the local firehouse for reassurance. What they hear from the chief is how important Beckham family support has been. Is the writer using his donations to manipulate and control various local agencies?

I read an advance reader copy of this book, which was labelled an ‘uncorrected proof.’ Typos will be caught, and other potential changes made. However, with respect to the fire chief, one error was so astonishing I thought it was intentional. Bailey asked the chief what is the maximum temperature a human body can tolerate, and he said 121 to 149 degrees Celsius, (250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit), ‘especially if there’s some water around.’ That is wrong in so many ways. The human body is about 60 percent water, which boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees F). Water (humidity) actually worsens the effects of heat on the body. This apparent slip-up is much more than a cosmetic problem, it affects the plot, making me wonder whether the fire chief is an imposter too. Is he dangerously uninformed about fire or deliberately misleading?

That stumble aside, when you come to understand the whole of Bailey’s predicament you may, like me, be struck by Hall’s accomplishment here. She manages to turn the tables on some issues I didn’t even realise were on the table. Despite my occasional annoyance with Bailey’s dithering, and the story questions that went unanswered – like, who was that old lady? – What Fire Brings is an exciting and memorable read.

Read about Hall’s own favourite classic crime stories.

Thomas & Mercer

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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