Daniel Sutherland is found viciously murdered aboard his houseboat on the dock of a London canal by Miriam, an older woman on a neighboring boat. A troubled young woman, Laura, was seen leaving the docks covered in blood, and the police quickly zero in on her as the suspect, despite the fact they cannot find the murder weapon. Soon the people that best knew Daniel are pulled into orbit with one another and long-simmering resentment will erupt into a conflagration. Motive is the question that drives A Slow Fire Burning, and it would be more accurate to call it motives, some of which have nothing to do with Daniel’s murder. Along with Laura and Miriam, the book also follows Daniel’s aunt Clara, her ex-husband Theo, Daniel’s mother Angela, and her neighbor Irene. As the police circle Laura we learn about the secrets that tie these characters together.
For most of the novel, Daniel’s murder is a MacGuffin. It exists to set the plot into motion and wind up the people involved. Once the gears are turning Hawkins turns her characters loose in a twisting narrative that sees them constantly complicating things for themselves. The story unspools slowly with each chapter flipping perspectives between the various characters as well as flashbacks and interspersed chapters from a book-inside-a-book called “The One Who Got Away”. While the book starts with Laura all of the characters could be considered the main character in A Slow Fire Burning. The mystery of who killed Daniel, and why, is kept in the background like a forgotten kettle that you only remember when it starts to whistle. This lack of urgency appears to be intentional and works well to slowly build the tension and suspense as pieces begin falling into place, and characters start falling apart, with rapidity toward the finale. The book is true to its title, this story smolders before bursting into flames.
Since this is a mystery I hesitate to say anything more about the story. In comparison to Hawkin’s other novels, The Girl on the Train (2015) and Into the Water (2017), this is her best one yet. Like her peers Tana French and Gillian Flynn, Hawkins focuses on characters as they drive the plot. Who did it is less important than the why and impact on the characters involved. With Into the Water, it was hard to tell the characters apart, making for a confusing narrative and a reveal of the killer that landed with a thud. I quite liked The Girl on the Train, however, Rachel was so pathetic and unlikable it made it hard to empathize with her. Ultimately that novel worked for me, and by the end, I did like and care about Rachel, but it definitely was a rough go at times. Her characters are more dimensional in A Slow Fire Burning and the shifting perspectives allow us to see not only how they see themselves, but how others see them. This works against our expectations constantly and turns characters from binary good/bad to shades of gray by the conclusion.
With A Slow Fire Burning, Hawkins has written a solid story with believable characters while maintaining the edge that she brought to her previous books. Most of the questions are answered, but not all, and the unanswered questions in A Slow Fire Burning are the ones that will haunt you after closing the cover.
Note: I would rate A Slow Fire Burning a 4.5/5.