Book Reviews

New Paula Hawkins whodunit is a meandering exploration of traumatic events

Ranjana Sundaresan | Updated on September 23, 2021

A Slow Fire Burning, while thoroughly intriguing and captivating, leaves you emotionally drained

My first impression of A Slow Fire Burning was that it’s an excuse to find out how much tragic origin story can be crammed into a book, while masquerading as a psychological drama disguised as a murder mystery.

The murder is gotten out of the way pretty quickly, with the death of a young man, Daniel, on a boat. The story then meanders through the lives of the people grazed by this crime in the back-and-forth narration that has become as much norm as cliché.

There’s middle-aged Miriam, who discovers the body and was herself the victim of a horrific crime as a teenager.

Laura, the one-night stand, is a vulnerable young woman barely out of her teens and the victim of a horrific accident as a child.

Carla, Daniel’s aunt, and Theo, Carla’s writer ex-husband, are also at the receiving end of a tragedy in the past.

The murder victim himself was a disturbed young man, thanks to, you guessed it, past tragedies.

A pattern emerges, eh?

The idea is to show how traumatic events of the past – the slow fire – might dictate future incidents. Each of these characters continues to receive regular doses of (unnecessary) tragedy in what may be an attempt to evoke greater sympathy in the reader, though they are all so unrelatable and unlikeable, it’s hard to truly root for any of them. You just sort of feel pity.

Everyone is a hot mess prone to making bad decisions, perhaps underscoring the belief that tragedy begets tragedy, but it just comes across as pathos for pathos’ sake. We get it, bad stuff happens. There’s no need to beat us over the head with it. At one point, Hawkins actually summed up my reaction to not just this book but also to many contemporary murder mysteries/thrillers in general: “What was wrong with the traditional crime novel, after all, with good prevailing and evil vanquished? So what if things rarely turned out like that in real life?”

The murder itself is relegated to the background and only seems to pop up as a plot device – there were times I forgot that there was a murderer to be found, quite an achievement considering that the book is a short read just shy of 300 pages.

This is actually a testament to how fantastic a writer Hawkins is, particularly in terms of developing a character and keeping it interesting. The mystery part of the novel is fairly uncomplicated. After a point in the narrative, it becomes pretty obvious who the murderer is. The buildup to this was, however, quite masterful, allowing for suspicion to fall on everyone because they were all so likely to have done it.

There are interesting story arcs exploring the complex and sometimes disturbing relationships between different characters. Theo and Miriam’s journey from acquaintances to fallout over plagiarism accusations to some semblance of resolution was surprisingly, if dubiously, gratifying.

An undercurrent of good versus bad mothers, the joys and pressures of motherhood or lack thereof run throughout the book. It’s hard to tell if this is because there is a tendency to conflate women and motherhood in story-telling or if I’m just reading way too much into this theme. However, to give Hawkins her due, these instances don’t seem forced or unlikely at all.

All-too-brief moments of unexpected levity also lurked behind all the depressing stuff, as with Laura’s friendship with Irene, an 80-year-old woman, who is the only likeable person in the story.

These lighter moments did make the cynic in me wonder if Hawkins was giving a wink and a nod to the current trend of dark and depressing story-telling, with a rather heavy-handed approach to emotionally manipulating the reader.

I also wondered if the narration style and setting were chosen solely keeping in mind the possibility of a future translation onto the screen, especially given the success of Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train. The setting of the murder on a houseboat and Miriam’s home on one, for example, shriek of a picturesque London set piece just waiting to be made into a women-centric TV miniseries.

A good murder mystery should be pure escapism, an enjoyable exercise in guesswork and logical deduction, as well as some minor human drama that can be forgotten as soon as it’s done. A Slow Fire Burning, while thoroughly intriguing and captivating, just left me emotionally drained and with a sense of despair that carried on for a bit. It’s time to set aside these wronged women, bad mother tropes and explore other facets of women as regular human beings.

My initial impression of the book still holds true to an extent (too much tragedy), it’s also true that this is a hard book to categorise into a specific genre. It’s a bit of everything. It offers a somewhat enjoyable, tight storyline with well-developed characters who evoke horror, frustration, pity, sadness, and a wry laugh or two, but at no point, boredom.

(Ranjana Sundaresan is an F& B analyst and a bookworm, particularly addicted to whodunits)


A Slow Fire Burning

Paula Hawkins

Transworld/ Penguin Random House

First published: 2021

Number of pages: 298

Price: ₹699

Check out the book on Amazon


Published on September 21, 2021

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