Thursday, May 29, 2008

WHAT BURNS WITHIN by Sandra Ruttan

Dorchester Books, 2008, 978-0843960747

When you think of Hardboiled, you probably don’t think of Vancouver. Canada never seems – to us outsiders at any rate – like a crimewave kind of country. But if there’s an author determined to buck the trend, its Sandra Ruttan. While her debut novel, Suspicious Circumstances was set in the US, Ruttan now moves the action north to her homeland, with gripping results. A missing child and a serial aronist would give give most cops nightmares. But for three Vancouver detectives, mere nightmares might seem a picnic compared to what they’ll be facing as they attempt to bring justice to the streets of their city.

What Burns Within marks the first of a sequence of novels set among the Vancouver police department, focussing specifically on three officers whose lives and cases are about to become seriously twisted. The focus is – befitting Ruttan’s strengths – on character and a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring the cast of What Burns Within live and breathe beyond the page. As is always the case, some people stick with you more than others. Here, its Detective Ashlyn Hart who seems to steal the show. Perhaps in part because she has some of the most difficult choices to make, but she emerges as the standout of the central trio of characters by evoking a genuine sense of empathy with the reader.

But while Ruttan is a natural for sketching tough and believable characters, she doesn’t allow her writing to rest on that alone. Anyone writing procedure has to ensure that the reader is convinced by the investigation, and its here that Ruttan’s smart approach shines. Subtle touches add authenticity to proceedings. Little things, such as the way she refuses to let her cop protagonists into a burned out building, something that some authors would be tempted to fudge for the sake of “poetic licence”. But Ruttan works hard to find unique ways to overcome these problems. One particular scene involving Lt Hart, a bucket lift and one heckuva scary drop emerges as particularly memorable.

The plot itself is often heartwrenching. Placing a child at the centre of a story is often a cheap way of tugging at the heartstrings, but Ruttan manages to mix in the emotional with the realistic, a ploy immediately brought into play with the opening scene that sees a girl losing her younger brother at a fairground. The scene plays with a kind of realistic childhood – not too cute, not too cynical – and there’s a feeling of deep unease by the end of the scene that is paid off in spades as the book progresses. Ruttan plays about with innocence and guilt in unexpected ways, and nuances even her young cast in such a way that the children are far more than mere ciphers or metaphors in the way many writers would use them.

It’s rare that a writer can combine character and procedural effectively, but Ruttan manages to create an emotionally invested thriller that also feels grounded in real – if somewhat dramatic – policework. The attention to detail helps add weight to the fictional world Ruttan has created. And while there are certain near obligatory investigative scenes included, the details and the characters move them beyond standard set pieces. In fact, Ruttan offers a kind of unpredictability that is rare in standard procedurals. While heroes are often complex characters, it is rare that we think they might not solve the case or save the day. Here, Ruttan manages to manipulate her audience into a kind of uncertainty over how events might turn out, and in doing so creates an air of realism that solidifies the novel and its world.

It helps that Ruttan’s smooth style – far more confident here than in her debut – flows particularly well, creating the kind rhythm that grips the reader and keeps them flipping those pages. Pace and style count for a lot, and What Burns Within has both in spades.

Ruttan combines devilishly clever plots with genuinely empathic characters. What Burns Within is a taught, confidently told character-led thriller, with Ruttan’s natural style shining through. And when you turn that last page, you’ll be itching for more from not simply the author herself, but the intriguing cast… who are begging for further exploration, and are slated to return in the second novel, The Frailty of Flesh.

Russel D McLean for, 29/05/08