“Her best yet” – The Burning Boy by Nicola White

“A murder that no one wants to solve …..”

IMG_2022-1-6-151834The Burning Boy is Nicola White’s third crime novel featuring Detective Inspector Vincent Swan and his side-kick, Gina Considine.

1986, Dublin. When Kieran Lynch, an off-duty Guard officer is found dead in Phoenix Park, a notorious hot spot for homosexuals, Gina Considine has to decide whether or not to fess up to having seen and spoken to him outside a gay community centre the same night. It would potentially reveal her own sexual orientation to her boss, DI Swan. They have good working relationship and Swan thinks highly of his young assistant. She is, in his opinion, the most intelligent and dedicated officer in his team and, as the only woman, has to put up with a considerable amount of stereotyping, that’s just short of bullying, from her male colleagues. Here Considine reflects on her situation:

“Joining the Guards hadn’t been a brave decision, it just appeared so from the outside. The violence  and chaos that she dealt with every day distracted her from the chaos within. Living with Terry, the first woman she had slept with, had not been brave either, nor was lying about it to everyone she knew. What might she have done if she hadn’t been so scared?”

As Swan and Considine go about trying to discover the circumstances around Kieran’s murder and the people he had associated with before his death who might throw light on what occurred, readers learn more about the personal lives of Considine and the DI which, until this third book in the DI Swan series, the author had only vaguely touched upon. It had not previously been known that Considine is a lesbian or that Swan’s marriage has been on rather rocky ground. In The Burning Boy they separate after his cat dies and Swan moves in with his mother.

What is particularly interesting in this novel is White’s focus on the private lives of Swan and Considine while she leaves those of the colleagues they work with largely unexplored. The characters are mentioned every so often and we know that they have wives or girlfriends who are sometimes spoken about disparagingly, but otherwise the officers remain very much in the shadows of the narrative. It would make for an intriguing conversation with the author to learn her reasons for this literary ploy. Was it even a conscious decision or had it simply come about during  the writing process? At one point White puts these thoughts into Swan’s head. They say much about the attitudes that prevailed in Ireland’s police force, and probably elsewhere too, during the 1980s:

“The officers of the murder squad enjoyed a kind of survivor mythology —  the idea that the weaker colleagues constantly fell by the wayside because of the toughness of the work. Considine was still surrounded by the same faces who had greeted her with disbelief when she was hired four years before.”

White’s depiction of Dublin, the streets and areas Swan and Considine visit in the course of their investigations will no doubt appeal to anyone familiar with the city. Her descriptions are vivid and rich in atmosphere and it’s easy for readers to imagine themselves walking alongside the two protagonists. Here Swan considers his surroundings as he goes about his business:

“Swan was fond of these narrow cobbled streets and tall sooty warehouses, just as they were. He tried to make his brain swerve the adjective Dickensian, but the cliché was apt. He wasn’t against modern architecture in general, but he was against how it was practised in Dublin. The high-rise bunkers of the Central Bank and the offices they built over the Viking remains at Wood Quay were great galumphing travesties of everything he loved about the city.”

In the course of the story White acquaints readers with Kieran’s eccentric family, his home, a large mansion located precariously on a steep rocky outcrop of land above the seashore, and the unexpected familial links to people Swan and Considine are attempting to track down for questioning. The lead up to the novel’s dramatic conclusion finds Considine grappling with her feelings of guilt for knowingly being in possession of stolen goods and speculating on her loyalty to the force when she doesn’t tell Swan. She already knows more than she admits to:

“Had there been a moment when she could have safely told someone she’d seen Kieran Lynch the night he was murdered? Perhaps she could have told Swan at the hospital. That gap of opportunity had now closed. Once you start hiding things it makes you vulnerable. And culpable. And for what?”

As Swan and Considine separately embark on new lives readers are left wondering if there will be further books in the DI Vincent Swan series. Only the author knows the answer to that question.

Nicola White’s crime writing is refreshingly different from the typical formulaic structure of the genre. I also enjoyed the previous two books in the series, In The Rosary Garden (2013) and A Famished Heart (2020), but The Burning Boy is her best yet. Its cover is, arguably, the nicest too with embossed type and an image of a mysterious-looking door.

Any Cop?: Highly recommended for fans a little tired of the traditional crime fiction of old who are looking for a new approach to the genre.

Carola Huttmann

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