Paula Hawkins was revered after her first novel The Girl on the Train soared to the top of the charts, such was the efficacy of her story telling and her ability to create a level of mystery and intrigue in the life of the protagonist. Similarly, with this new offering A Slow Fire Burning we, as the reader, are pummelled into a murder mystery of the highest order. Daniel, a young man is found on a house boat with his throat slit and blood covering the entirety of the boat. A truly grotesque and horrific situation for anyone to find, let alone a nosy neighbour.
Hawkins stretches her psychological thriller muscle to the extreme with this mystery. It is a narrative set over the course of about a month with the lead culprit - Laura - a highly scarred individual, both externally following a terrible accident as a child, and internally dealing with the psychological trauma of the whole incident along with a sizeable amount of brain damage. Her incarceration seems fitting - given the remarkable set of circumstances and the heavy evidence against her. But there is more to it.
Added into the mix is a novelist - Theo - whose book has become a runaway bestseller and left him with a strong collection of fans. Many of which exclaim that he has ripped off their idea. But is one of them actually right? Theo is Daniel’s uncle, and married to Carla. Unfortunately, early in their marriage, they lost their son - Ben - when he was three years old. The pain and anguish that has resulted from that loss is deep and unyielding.
Then there is Miriam, the quintessential nosy neighbour aforementioned, the one who finds Daniel. But why is she so interested in the whole proceeding?
The cast of characters contains a number of plausible killers in its midst. The underbelly of what is otherwise a fairly mundane existence is brought to the fore. The perspective that we all have something to hide is definitely the main conflict driver throughout the page-turner. You will find yourself guessing, and then re-guessing at several times throughout the narrative. Red herrings abound in this one!
Hawkins writes in an interview that “It was a book that exposed the way the sympathies of the reader might be manipulated, laying bare how quickly we jump to conclusions about guilt and innocence, power and responsibility.” As a text, it ticks all of these boxes with precision.
If anything, the characters are a little too unreliable in their point of view which means that the reader struggles to keep up with the untangling of a range of complex story lines, all tightly interwoven. It took a couple of breaks away from the text and then rereading to really appreciate the complicated arrangement of characters that Hawkins explores.
Overridingly, the themes of jealousy and deception are key to the narrative. Hawkins is consistent in her approach to the craft of story telling. She is intricate and meticulous in her unravelling of both the narrative, and of the characters mental state.
It is the type of story that would make Agatha Christie proud that another gifted writer has taken up her mantle as mystery master.
Reviewer: Chris Reed