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The Burning Girl    by Mark Billingham order for
Burning Girl
by Mark Billingham
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

A girl was set on fire twenty years before this story opens, amidst turf warfare involving North London gangs. Now, a killer lurks, someone who carves the letter 'X' on the living victim. A common thread seems to connect the criminal activities of racketeers, the smuggling of human and non-human cargo, and a letter distributed to business owners - 'Nearly half of all New Businesses fail within the first three years! Don't be one of the Unlucky Ones! Call us right now and buy yourself some peace of mind!'

Ex-DCI Carol Chamberlain awakens from another dream, as real as the incident that occurred twenty-years before in a case assigned to her. A young girl named Jessica Clarke was set on fire, while she sat on a fence with friends. The wrong girl was targeted. After all these years, Carol begins receiving threatening phone calls. 'I burned her', the caller says. But, it couldn't be Gordon Rooker, serving his sentence after he confessed to the crime. In addition to Chamberlain's nightmares, someone is setting fire to objects outside her home. She can't quite make out the face, it's just a man in the dark.

DI Tom Thorne and his team have been assigned to assist the Serious and Organized Crime Unit - West. Thorne offers support to his friend Chamberlain. He visits and questions prisoner Rooker, who admits that warlord Billy Ryan assigned him the contract killing of Kevin Kelly's youngest daughter. The prisoner now declares he did not commit the crime, but confessed in order to be incarcerated and escape Ryan's wrath. After the burning, gang boss Kelly turned his operation over to William Ryan, who later married Kelly's daughter Alison.

Now divorced from Ryan, Alison shows up at police headquarters to meet with Thorne. The excerpts from Jessica's diary, the verbal exchange with the DI, and the intended victim's description of helplessness while watching her friend Jessica suffer, are very effective. 'I'm Alison Kelly, Jessica Clarke was my best friend. I was the one she got mistaken for ... The first thing I knew was when Jess ran at me, and I stepped out of the way. Do you understand that? All I could do was watch it, then. I heard the crackle when it reached her hair'. Thorne arrives home one evening to find an 'X' carved on his door. When Thorne's father dies in a kitchen fire, Tom wonders if it was an Alzheimer's related accident, or arson.

Though The Burning Girl is neither an intense nor a suspenseful read, Mark Billingham offers mystery lovers a good plot. The flow is bumpy - as the author jumps from one scenario to another within the content of a page, making it a challenge to gain a sense of who's who and what's what - and American readers would benefit from a glossary for English slang, such as 'shagger' and 'flash kitchens'. I recommend the novel to readers who appreciate an author who writes with humanity. But, beware of some gruesome imagery, and be wary of plot twists. Billingham also has to his credits Lazybones and Scaredy Cat.

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