Balancing threads of a story can be a complex game for an author. Great writing and characters can be easily undermined by a confused plot or messy narrative. This is even truer if you take the bold step of having multiple storylines running parallel to one another. The secret is to keep these stories as essentially separate elements only coming together on occasion for dramatic effect. One book in which this is done well is Don Winslow's excellent 'Power of the Dog', he managed to set a book over two decades with other five main characters and make each page a joy to read. The latest author I have read to take on a similar (but easier) challenge is Jim Kelly in the book 'The Fire Baby'. Could he balance his three separate investigations so that they worked by themselves and as a whole?
Our story opens over two decades ago in a remote farmhouse that is about to become part of a tragedy. A plane from the local American military base crash lands on the farm killing everyone on board and the people in the house. That is until a woman stumbles out carrying a child from the plane. In the present day this women is on her death bad and reveals to local reporter Philip Dryden a secret that will lead to some very modern murders, pornography and illegal immigrants.
This is the second novel about Dryden that I have read so I knew what I was in for. Jim Kelly seems to specialise in crimes from the past effecting the present and this is the case once again here. Therefore, Dryden finds himself not only looking into the real events behind a 20 year old plane crash, but also a series of assumingly unattached murders. To top things off he is also asked to look into the local illegal immigrant population that come down to the nearby farms for seasonal work. Kelly would need to balance all three separate stories to make the book work.
Unfortunately, he is not quite able to pull this off. For the most part of the story the three threads are treated absolutely separately which is fine. Unfortunately, the paths are so spotty that I soon became confused as to which element of the story was linked to which crime. It did not help that the character of Dryden would start a chapter looking into one area only to finish it looking in another. To be honest by the half way point I was entirely lost as to what exactly was meant to be going on and decided to hold on just to see if it all came together at the end. Luckily for Kelly this is what happened as although I did not really know what was going on during the book, the conclusion did make sense.
The confused plotlines are even more of a shame when you can clearly see Kelly's writing talent in other areas of the book. He is particularly strong in characterisation and especially the hero Dryden and his grumpy cabbie pal. As a side line to each Dryden story we are involved with his comotosed wife, this is a tale that is part of each of the book as over time she slowly seems to be waking up. By having this emotional weight always playing on his mind a reader feels a closer connection to Dryden than perhaps we would if he were just another run of the mill journalist.
'The Fire Baby' was a book packed with potential, but fails due to basic confusion. The three themes interweave too complexly and it made the book tougher than it should have been to penetrate. I certainly still enjoyed the book though as the characterisation and individual moments in the book were very well written. I would probably still recommend people this book if they had read 'The Water Clock', the first in the series, but as a stand alone I would say skip it. If reading about an English feeling mystery set in the countryside appeals to you I heartily recommend the excellent Simon Beckett's 'The Chemistry of Death' which covers similar themes to 'The Fire Baby' but deals with them in a better way.
Author: Jim Kelly
Price: amazon uk - £5.99
play.com - £5.99