Partly a story around Iris Foster, partly a story around arson, BURN PATTERNS puts a complicated woman at the heart of a story about complicated offenders. Known as "The Fire Lady" Foster is a psychologist with a messy past that she's tried to put behind her. Until mid consultation with patients nothing to do with fires, she's hauled out by the police and taken straight to the site of a bomb planted at a local school. It doesn't matter how hard Iris tries to step away from her role as "Fire Lady" she's dragged back in - particularly as the initial bomb explosion leads to a range of other dangerous situations behind which there seems to be a serial bomber / arsonist.
Goodness knows why, but authors seem inclined to shy away from creating complicated, flawed characters in local crime fiction, as here Iris Foster proves what fertile, and discomforting territory they can be. BURN PATTERNS is as much about her as it is about the serial arsonist she pursues, and her characterisation is undoubtedly the great strength of the novel. A disconcerting one no doubt as Foster battles with her working past and present, her relationship with the emergency services and her status as the Fire Lady, and doubts and insecurities about her marriage and relationship with her daughter. Given her profession, she's oddly passive about all her problems and doubts, choosing to internalise much, which makes her a particularly interesting character to read about. She's not immediately likeable and in fact can be quite off-putting.
Around Foster's personal problems there swirls a complicated plot of arson, bomb attacks, a delusional patient and a lone fire investigator. Plot, unfortunately is sometimes sacrificed to the struggles of character however, and it often requires some Herculean efforts of concentration to keep track of who does what when and to who. Which to be fair, goes well with the overwhelming feeling of just about everybody hanging on by their fingertips within the narrative itself. That sense of barely managing to keep it together goes with the ending which is somewhat rushed, although you could also describe it as unexpectedly restrained. It feels like a lot remains unanswered just as a lot of what's really going on with Foster remains unanswered for most of the novel.
BURN PATTERNS was a most unusual reading experience. Bet you any money, it leaves as many readers unsatisfied, as it does those keen for more.