On a page at the beginning of the book, there is a quote from Sir Thomas Browne (Urn Burial), a seventeenth century physician. “The certainty of death is attended with uncertainties, in time, manner, places.” London has been terrified by the discovery of the bodies, brutally murdered and then set on fire. The newspapers have dubbed the assailant “Burning Man” and the name as much as the his actions have resulted in a collective hysteria. Kelly Staples accepts a ride from a man after leaving a bar. As soon as she enters the car, she realizes that she should not have done so and imagination takes over. When Kelly becomes convinced he is the Burning Man, she attacks first and nearly kills him.
Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is awakened in the small hours of the morning to join her team at the hospital where the Kelly and her victim are being treated, Kelly for shock and the man for life-threatening stab wounds. As the only woman on the team, it is up to Maeve to talk to Kelly, to get the details of the attack. Kelly is all too eager to talk and as she talks Maeve realizes that it will be Kelly who is charged. Her attack on the man who offered her the ride was unprovoked. He is definitely not the Burning Man.
Before Maeve and the team leave the hospital, they learn that while they were with Kelly, the body of another victim has been found. “She was wearing what looked like the remains of an expensive dress.The dress had been black, long-sleeved, cut diagonally across the neckline and high on one thigh ( she wore no coat, though it had been a cold night.) The fabric was folded and twisted into a rose at the waist that had stubbornly refused to burn. It was a miracle of design and tailoring that would have flattered the slender figure in life….” Like the other victims, the body hadn’t burned completely. Next of kin would be spared having to give a visual identification.`A DNA match is made. Rebecca Haworth had been in a car that had been stopped by police, a small amount of drugs found in the car. She lived in a new apartment building and she worked for a public relations firm.
Maeve and her partner, Sam Prosser, arrive at Rebecca’s apartment to find her best friend, Louise North, cleaning the apartment. Louise is a solicitor with a prestigious firm but she and Rebecca had been best friends since they met at Oxford and Louise had made a habit of clearing up after Rebecca. Louise had come to the apartment because she hadn’t been able to reach Rebecca for a few weeks and she was worried that something had happened to her. Louise is devastated by the news of Rebecca’s death.
Gil Maddick had been Rebecca’s boyfriend; she had recently ended the relationship. Although her parents are still alive, Rebecca carried a substantial life insurance policy with Gil as the beneficiary.
As far as the police and press are concerned, Rebecca Haworth is the fifth victim of the Burning Man but Maeve isn’t convinced. There are a few things at the scene, a few things about the body, that suggest that there is another killer. Maeve’s boss, Superintendent Godly, isn’t convinced but there is something about Maeve’s argument that leads him to allow her to follow her own line of thinking as long as she kept in mind that she is still part of the larger team.
The author presents the story in two voices; most of the book consists of alternating chapters told from the perspective of either Maeve or Louise. Maeve keeps the reader aware of the police investigation, of the things she learns about the real Rebecca, a woman different from the one described by her parents. From Louise, we learn that Rebecca is the woman on which she based her emerging adult persona. Louise was quiet, Rebecca’s shadow. Louise learned about clothes and the deportment of the well-educated and the well-heeled from the gregarious Rebecca. Louise tells us that Rebecca wasn’t too good to be true; she was just as good as people knew her to be. The well-loved and loving daughter of moderately wealthy parents, Rebecca was warm and generous and Louise loved her, too..
As the story moves forward, the identity of the person who killed Rebecca becomes apparent but I didn’t care. It didn’t spoil the book because the author is a master of character development. Rebecca, Louise, Rebecca’s parents, boyfriends present and past, Maeve, Superintendent Godly, and Detective Constable Rob Langton are fully drawn and such complete personalities that there is no chance that the reader will confuse one with another. THE BURNING is a character driven novel that tells an engrossing story. I read it in a day because I kept wanting to know more and I knew the author would not disappoint.
In describing with such careful detail the dress Rebecca is wearing when her body is found, the reader learns within a few pages that Jane Casey doesn’t squander words. Instead, she expends them to create images as fully realized as if they had been done in oils on canvas. And she doesn’t let us forget the Burning Man either.