THE BURNING MEN by Will Shindler

THE BURNING MEN

Will Shindler

Hodder & Stoughon (hodder.co.uk)

£16.99

When an ex-fireman is doused in accelerant and set alight at his wedding, Detective Inspector Alex Finn finds himself leading the investigation despite the fact that he shouldn’t even be working. The deceased paid for the lavish party out of his own pocket, and when Finn starts to dig, to follow the money, he discovers that there is more to this ex-fireman than meets the eye. Retired from the service for some five years, following attendance at a particularly horrific inferno, Adesh Kaul is one of a group of five firemen who all worked together, and who all quit at around the same time. When a second member of this small group meets a similar gruesome death, Finn is forced to consider that something may have happened at the infamous One Pacific Square blaze, where these men – the first group to enter the burning building – encountered, and failed to save, one of London’s most notorious money launderers.

Contemporary British police procedurals are, to borrow an Americanism, a dime a dozen these days: every other paperback original is emblazoned with the words “A DI Wotzisname Novel”, and switching on the television often offers no respite. So, it’s difficult to know which ones to try, and which to leave well enough alone. It’s the eternal lament of the crime fiction fan: so many books, so little time. It’s a tough market for authors – especially debut authors – to crack: how do they make their investigator stand out from the crowd, their mystery more interesting and clever than the one that has gone before or, indeed, the one that will come after? Which brings us to Alex Finn, fictional alter ego of broadcast journalist Will Shindler.

Detective Inspector Alex Finn walked out of Alexanderplatz station, smiled at his dying wife and wrinkled his nose.

When we first meet Alex Finn, he is on holiday with his wife. A brief interlude to allow us to witness the death of Adesh Kaul and suddenly Finn is a widower who has just buried his wife, a formidable woman who, it seems, is determined to continue giving him advice even after she is dead. It’s surprising, then, when Finn returns to work and takes the reins of the investigation into Kaul’s death, with a newly-transferred detective constable at his side: Mattie Paulsen is smart and focused, but she is immediately unpopular with the older men under Finn’s command, an unspecified incident at her previous station leaving her seeming aloof and self-important, though under it all she is frightened and determined to do a good job.

From here, Shindler leads us on a twisted trail that seems to lead to a dapper old gent who is one of the most terrifying gangsters in London. While the surviving firemen – a number that dwindles rapidly as the investigation progresses – are reluctant to cooperate Finn is left to find whatever evidence he can in order to find the culprit and put him behind bars. With the help of Mattie Paulsen, and long-time colleague DS Jackie Ojo, Finn begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, slowly revealing what happened on the fateful night that One Pacific Square burned to the ground, and the series of events that it set in motion.

The big selling point for The Burning Men is, without a doubt, DI Alex Finn himself, and the other characters with which the novel is populated. We see Finn here at his most fragile and vulnerable, trying to get on with things to take his mind off the terrible loss he has just suffered. When he breaks down in the house of Adesh Kaul’s widow, we see a human side to this man who has, thus far, attempted to ignore, to work through, the grief that should have floored him. The constant voice in his head gives him strength, helps him to make decisions; but it’s those brief moments where he becomes overwhelmed that we see just how difficult it is for Finn to hold it all together, to keep working. It’s an interesting – and brave – plot point for the opening book in a series, and certainly makes Finn a character we want to see much more of.

Alongside this, Shindler uses his narrative to examine a handful of hot topics taken directly from the daily news: top of the list are the constantly-debated policing shortages, which force Alex Finn back to work so soon after his wife’s funeral. And through the eyes of Mattie Paulsen, and with the wisdom and hindsight of Jackie Ojo, he examines the role of women in this traditionally male-dominated career, and the prejudices that still form barriers to their ability to do their job, and to progress through the ranks.

The Burning Men has much to set it apart from the crowded field. At the heart are the characters who bring the story to life, and about whom we already want to know so much more. A clever crime, and an even more clever motive for that crime, bind us to the book from early on: this is a tough one to put down and while you won’t exactly rattle through the pages (this is no bad thing, trust me), it’ll keep you up late at night to read “just one more chapter.” An excellent start to what promises to be a great new series, it introduces a fresh new voice into the genre, a writer of considerable skill who knows exactly how to capture our attention and hold it for the duration. Smart and stylish, The Burning Men is must-read crime fiction at its very best.

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