Written by Solange Ritchie — Meet Dr Catherine ‘Cat’ Powers, a forensic pathologist with the FBI who is the star of the show in this debut novel by an author who used to ply her trade as a lawyer.
A most unusual debut it is too. Before I began to write this I double checked that it really is the first Cat Power novel. The reason for my confusion? There is so much back story hinted at in The Burning Man that I thought I must have missed out on a book or two.
They say you should write about what you know, and as an Orange County, California resident, Ritchie uses her local knowledge to grand effect. However, unlike her fellow lawyer-turned-writer John Grisham she steers a clear path away from any form of courtroom dramatics. Apologies for the pun, but the jury is still out on whether that was a good decision or not.
Instead, we have a serial killer on the loose, the Burning Man of the title, who likes to precisely cut his victims and pour sulphuric acid into the wounds. To chime with that, the book’s cover looks like leather – or skin – that has been badly burned by acid, with the title stencilled over this effect. There seems little rhyme or reason to the killer’s choice of victims other than they are all female. Called in to help the local police catch the killer, Cat will definitely have her work cut out here.
She is assisted in her quest to find the killer by seasoned Detective Jim McGregor and after an initial chilliness the pair become an interesting team. As the body count rises, they begin to trust each other’s judgement and work the cases with the ferocity of a pit bull. So far so good, but why oh why do authors have to give their strong female protagonists maverick tendencies? Just as the McGregor/Powers relationship begins to bed in nicely, Cat sets off on her own tangent… and into danger as the killer decides that she would make the perfect victim.
There are some very strange anomalies in this book. For a forensic pathologist Cat displays scant knowledge of general medicine and at one point she befriends a man she believes may be the murderer and goes off alone with him. I also felt the scenes where her six-year-old son internalises his thoughts use overly adult language and don’t ring true. Last but not least, towards the end of the book there appears to be a whole chapter missing as Cat moves from one situation to another, offering the reader no clue as to how she got there.
This is a book that would appeal to fans of Kathy Reichs’ Tempe Brennan and Patricia Cornwell’s creation Kay Scarpetta. Apparently there are three other Cat Powers books in the pipeline and I’d look forward to making her acquaintance again. Hopefully some of that aforementioned back story will be filled in properly and we will learn more about what makes this feisty woman tick. It’d also be good to see more of Cat in action as a forensic pathologist rather than a would-be sleuth. A decent debut which would have been improved by a good old fashioned edit.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars