Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Burns Within, by Sandra Ruttan

I've had Sandra Ruttan's first Nolan/Hart/Tain novel on my TBR pile for a while, and with the release of the second in the series this month, it's time for me to catch up. What Burns Within is a police procedural that takes very seriously the notion that a writer should "show" rather than "tell" a story: with a minimum of explanation and no introduction at all, Ruttan gives her story in dialogue among and interior monologues by each of the three main characters (detective constables in an RCMP station in greater Vancouver, each of whom has a different point of view and a different understanding of what's going on). The resulting story is revealed with clarity and rapid movement, rooted in the 87th precinct and Martin Beck's murder squad, but with a lot of Hill Street Blues, Third Watch, and The Wire mixed in, especially in terms of the pacing, which is very fast--I'm tempted to say cinematic, but that's not quite it. It's more like we the readers are running to catch up with investigators who are in a big hurry to reach their goals, with no time wasted on getting them from one place to another since each of them is working simultaneously. As we watch over their shoulders, the three cops become involved in three separate cases, serial arson, serial rape, and a series of missing and murdered children. One of the distinctive features of What Burns Within is that the reader is dropped in medias res: Nolan, Hart, and Tain, we learn gradually, had met in the course of an earlier disastrous investigation that left marks on all three, but we are not served up that case on a platter: we learn little bits and pieces as we listen to and learn about the characters--it's the characters that Ruttan cares about, not the back story, except as it has affected them and created a commonality among them. I won't summarize the plot any more than the little I have already suggested, because gradually working our own way into the story is one of the important parts of reading Ruttan's story: we see through the eyes of the three main characters as well as a few other cops, a few victims, and (very briefly) one of the people they're chasing. It's unusual, in my experience, for a writer to balance so many characters (and so many separate threads of investigation), as well as to focus on three characters without emphasizing any one of them: McBain shifted Carella to the narrative center, ultimately, Sjöwall and Wahlöö's characters are in orbit around Beck, and those TV series I mentioned hang their multiple casts on a few characters who are the moral and narrative center of the series. Craig Nolan, Ashlyn Hart, and Tain (nobody uses his other name) are equally important, and Ruttan keeps the intertwined cases going by giving each of the three their own process and focus. And just as you think that the plot is going toward a cliche, the story veers away into something completely different, revealing something new not only about the story but about the three cops and the other characters that you hadn't expected. The author's investigation of those characters and their struggles with the case and with each other (and with the chain of command, other cops, and recalcitrant citizens--guilty or not) is as much the real subject of What Burns Within as the investigation of the cluster of crimes. What Burns Within is a vividly told story with a propulsive forward motion and a very distinctive addition to the procedural wing of contemporary crime fiction. There turns out to be an advantage in my having been slow to get it to the top of my reading pile--now I don't have to wait impatiently for the publication date of The Frailty of Flesh, the second Hart/Nolan/Tain book (about which you'll soon be reading here).

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