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by Erin Kelly
Viking/Pamela Dorman Books, February 2013
336 pages
ISBN: 0670026727

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The death of a family matriarch, a family gathering with a suspicious new participant, buried family secrets, all culminating in a horrific crime is far from an original approach to crime fiction (particularly British) and at this point it takes a certain amount of raw talent and expert execution to make a novel stand out. With THE BURNING AIR, Erin Kelly attempts and succeeds - to a certain extent - even if the novel falters when it tries to be too clever by half and when it ventures to get inside the mind of an insane criminal rather than hewing to a naturalistic narrative.

Some time after their beloved mother, Lydia, passes away, the MacBride family gathers to spread Lydia's ashes and generally enjoy one another's company. Present are: widower Rowan who is the headmaster at a prestigious private school, the overstressed Sophie who is dealing with a growing family and a flawed husband; Tara, who finally is in a stable relationship with boyfriend Matt; and ne'er do-well Felix who has brought the beautiful, yet mysterious girlfriend Kerry. But when Kerry disappears with Sophie's youngest child, the family sets off to find the child and in the process discovers the chilling truth about a truly disturbed individual from their past.

Such is the set-up to THE BURNING AIR - and it's a captivating one to be sure. However, starting with an abrupt change of perspective that serves to misdirect and confuse the reader for no perceptible purpose, Kelly's work declines into a novel not nearly as smart as its first third would lead you to expect and nowhere near as clever as it would like to believe. The naturalism of the first act vanishes and instead the reader is presented with ridiculous plot and character developments that severely strain credulity and diminish the strong character development of the MacBrides that Kelly expertly crafts throughout the novel. Instead of following through with the set-up where a flawed, but well-intentioned family is subject to the blowback from past deeds, the MacBrides are transformed into a somewhat dim family who fall victim to a delusional and deeply disturbed individual who harbors a largely unfounded grudge against the family. It is as if author Kelly has simply overthought her task and tried too hard to make THE BURNING AIR stand out from the rest of what's on offer in the literary marketplace.

THE BURNING AIR is a flawed work to be sure and it certainly does not live up to the promise of its first one hundred pages, but with one notable exception it does possess intriguing core characters who are well-developed. For those looking primarily for fascinating character studies, it may well be worth a read; but for crime fiction and suspense fans, its distracting misdirection and lapses of credibility will sorely disappoint.

Ben Neal is a public librarian in northeastern Tennessee and likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, June 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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