Clean Burn - Karen Sandler

24th July 2014

“With clean burn, the accelerant creates such an intense fire, the soot gets burned away.  A fire so hot it would burn away all my sins.”

It is always tough to create a new private investigator, without resorting to over-used and well-worn clichés.  Thankfully in this case, on the whole the author Karen Sandler has created a very unique PI in that sense, in detective Janelle Watkins.  Private investigators in fiction are predominantly male, and have some form of reckless addiction, usually destructors like alcohol, tobacco, self-loathing or the arms of loose women. 

“New red marks joined the dozens of others dotting my arms from wrist to elbow, one for each burnt match.”

So it is refreshing – if somewhat uncomfortable at times - to read of a female in the trade with a more unusual dependence.  Janelle’s addiction is fire, specifically burning her own skin with spent matches, and obsessively watching, researching and reading about fires.  The odd compulsion stems from an abusive relationship with her father, who would regularly burn her with cigarettes for no reason at all.  Her father was also burned badly himself, an event Janelle was witness to and one which clearly left a disturbing imprint on her.  Her body is covered in scars from past burns, setting the early tone of a PI fighting her past, but also unable to cope with the memories without resorting to self-harm.

Formerly a police officer for the San Francisco Police Department, a serious leg injury resulted in Janelle leaving the force and setting out on her own.  She used to specialise in child abduction cases, with a string of successful cases under her belt.  However she is always haunted by the one case which didn’t go well, and has regular flashbacks to one particular young boy Tommy Phillips she was unable to save.  The boy haunts her dreams, which is why now she deals mainly in divorce work.

Janelle is approached by two clients who beg her to help them find their children, citing her excellent reputation in that field.  Reluctantly Janelle agrees to look into the cases, however this means a return to her hometown of Greenville, where she must exorcise a few ghosts, notably that of the now county sheriff, Ken Heinz.  Former partners in the SFPD, Janelle was also the paramour which eventually led to Heinz’s marriage breakdown.  There is some real animosity between the two now, though Janelle offers an olive branch, which Ken hesitantly accepts.

The child abductions point to Greenville, and Janelle thinks there may be a link between the abductions and a serial arsonist on the loose in the county.  The fires appear to be random, but utilising a computer application called ProSpy, where various fields and parameters are input and analysed to create possible suspects, a pattern appears to emerge.  Janelle and Heinz must work to piece the clues together and locate the children, before it’s too late.

“A chill burned down my spine, roiled my stomach.”

Returning to Greenville is clearly painful for Janelle, as not only is Ken here, but it also stirs up memories of her father and what he did to her.  Her family home sits abandoned, left as it was after her father’s death, and Janelle cannot help but revisit the place in spite of what this does for her mental health.

The plot itself is quite clever; the link between the fires and the children very smartly tied up to form a satisfying conclusion to the case.  The fact that Greenville houses a few very undesirable people adds to the tension along the way, as both Janelle and Ken understandably struggle to hide their repulsion for the type of person who might want to abduct a child.  Janelle’s personal demons make for a compelling character, one we never truly understand, though we care enough to hope she gets help after the case.  You cannot help but wince every time Janelle talks about burning herself.

There is also an amusing power struggle between Ken and his diabetic niece Cassie, who is a typical teenager insistent on getting her own way.  There is another, between Janelle and her assistant Sheri, who destined for better things, sees her current role as merely a stepping stone to a successful law career.  These add some lighter aspects to what is quite a dark tale.

The only negative, which for me detracted from the tight plot, was the over-charged eroticism between Janelle and Ken; these parts had all the hallmarks of a cheesy romance novel.  Further research into the author online has revealed that Sandler writes for Mills & Boone.  This in some way explains but in no way excuses the mistakes she made in trying to blur the romance and crime genres with this novel.  I don’t feel that crime/thriller books ever really need a romance sub-plot, and with such a steady narrative it really killed the pace of the book for me.

Janelle is painted as a tough-as-nails private investigator, but in some scenes becomes more a teenage girl, a contrast with which I struggled to tolerate.  During these scenes, I felt like they had been written by a different author, such was the drop in quality of writing from the rest of the novel:

“He’d burrowed deep enough into the shell of my heart. Another night of intimacy, he might have taken up permanent residence.”

“Physically he was everything a woman could have wanted in one boffo package.”

Karen Sandler is a female writing from the perspective of a female, so there is every chance that this is how females think; I will never know.  However I felt that there was no need for this relationship at all in terms of the storyline; a simple stand-off leading to mutual respect throughout the investigation, would have been adequate.  It has made me cautious about reading more Janelle Watkins stories unfortunately, and knocks a star off my overall rating for the book.

I received this book for free, for taking part in the Goodreads First Reads program.  Incidentally, I was actually supposed to receive Hangtown, the second book in the Janelle Watkins series, but the publication of that book was cancelled, which is unfortunate for the author.

Rating: 3/5 stars

About the author:

Karen’s early published works were romance novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  In 2011, Karen returned to her first love, science fiction, with the publication of Tankborn; the first in a young adult trilogy.

Clean Burn, the first in the Janelle Watkins series of mysteries was released in September 2013, and was due to be followed by Hangtown in summer 2014.