Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the changes we’ve seen in police procedurals of the past few decades is the increasing number of series that feature women as police protagonists. That makes sense of course as women have come to play ever more important roles in real-life police forces. Let’s take a closer look at that trend today; let’s turn the spotlight on Jane Casey’s The Burning, the first in her DC Maeve Kerrigan series.
Kerrigan and the rest of her colleagues at the Met have been on the trail of a killer that the press has nicknamed the Burning Man, because he destroys his victims’ bodies by fire. They’ve not made much progress and everyone is on edge because of it. The press hasn’t made matters any easier. Then, things get even worse. The team catches a suspect they think might be their killer. But while they have him in custody, another body is found. This means that the man they have isn’t the right man. Frustrated and once again the target of press attacks, they have to start over.
The newest victim is PR professional Rebecca Haworth. In many ways, her murder closely resembles the other murders, so the first assumption is that she is the Burning Man’s latest victim. But there are some things about this killing that are a little different. Now the question is whether this is a ‘copycat killing’ or whether the killer has simply changed his MO.
Kerrigan wants to be a part of the team that catches the Burning Man, but she’s asked instead to focus her attention on the Haworth murder. The ‘official’ reason is that if Haworth was a victim of the Burning Man, the Met’s doing its job by following her murder up carefully. If she wasn’t, no-one can accuse the Met of ignoring a murder. But Kerrigan knows that her assignment to the Haworth case is also political: one of her superiors wants to shunt her off the Burning Man case.
Still, Kerrigan takes up her assignment and begins to investigate Rebecca Haworth’s life and death. Soon enough she finds that Haworth was a much more complicated person than it seemed on the surface. And it turns out that more than one person has a good motive for wanting her dead. The more Kerrigan and her partner Rob Langton learn about this case, the less likely it seems that it’s another Burning Man murder.
Now the story follows two investigations. From the viewpoints of Kerrigan, Langton, and Rebecca Haworth’s best friend Louise North, we learn what really happened to Haworth and we find out the truth about the Burning Man.
This is, as I say, a police procedural, so a major element in the story is Kerrigan’s life as a cop. There are briefings, interviews with witnesses, strategy sessions and so on. There’s also the element of police politics. For example, Kerrigan doesn’t get on very well with one of her superior officers, and that’s a big part of why she’s put on the Haworth case in the first place. There’s police gossip as well, and there’s a realistic look at what it is to be a woman in a traditionally very male-dominated profession. Kerrigan is no weakling; she gives as good as she gets as the saying goes. And she’s earned the respect of the people she works with, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean that there are no sexist remarks or crude comments. It’s just that Kerrigan has learned to respond to them in a way that works for her. And to be fair, there’s a sense of teamwork, too. Most of the cops do stick up for each other. There’s also an authentic sense of frustration as the cops try to catch the Burning Man. Everyone’s stressed and getting very tired of being lambasted in the press. Everyone wants this case solved.
Another important element in this novel is the character of Rebecca Haworth, and those of the people in her lives. As Kerrigan uncovers Haworth’s history, we meet her former boyfriend Gil Maddick, her best friend Louise North, her parents, some of the people she knew at university, and some of her work colleagues. Through each of these lenses, we get to learn more and more about the victim. In some ways it’s very enlightening of course, but in some ways it makes the case more difficult. Everyone seems to have a different perspective on Haworth so that it’s hard to get a reliable picture of the kind of person she was. But Kerrigan and Langton persevere, and it turns out that Rebecca’s personality and her history turn out to be very important factors in her murder.
Then there’s the character of Maeve Kerrigan herself. Readers who are tired of weak female characters as well as ‘superwoman’ female characters will be pleased to know that Kerrigan is neither. She is smart, intuitive, and unafraid to stand up to people. She thinks independently, but she’s not a ‘my way or no way’ kind of ‘maverick.’ She understands the value of her colleagues and in general, she plays by the rules as the saying goes. She is also human. She makes mistakes and gets misled at times, and she draws wrong conclusions. But when that happens she starts over and re-directs herself. It’s not hard to be on her side and Langton’s as they pursue these cases.
The story is told from three points of view: Kerrigan’s, Louise North’s, and Langton’s. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. But Casey makes it clear whose point of view is being shared at any given time.
The mystery itself makes sense once one knows the people involved. And the cases are solved realistically, wrong turns and all. The ending isn’t a happy one though; everything is not all OK again once the cases are solved. Casey shows just how devastating Haworth’s death is for her family, and even though the police find out who the Burning Man is, that doesn’t really change anything – not really – for the people who’ve lost loved ones. Still, we do get answers, and that gives a sense of closure.
The Burning is an authentic look at the way the police investigate a high-profile series of murders. It features an ensemble cast of characters and introduces a solid protagonist. But what’s your view? Have you read The Burning? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 24 March/Tuesday 25 March – Bleak House – Charles Dickens
Monday 31 March/Tuesday 1 April – Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Monday 7 April/Tuesday 8 April – A Private Venus - Giorgio Scerbanenco