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by Jim Kelly
St Martin's Minotaur, December 2004
336 pages
ISBN: 0312321457

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jim Kelly's THE WATER CLOCK was one of my books of 2003, a slightly off-the-wall debut set in England's bleak Fenland and starring a journalist whose wife is in a coma. THE FIRE BABY is a tremendous sequel where the characters grow and the exceptional world-building transports you to this strange landscape.

Former national paper hack Philip Dryden is working for a local rag. The arrangement allows him to spend time with his wife Laura, who has been locked in a coma for four years after a car crash. It seems she may be becoming aware of her surroundings, and sending cryptic ticker-tape messages to Philip.

Sharing Laura's hospital room, dying of cancer, is Maggie Beck. Twenty seven years ago she emerged alive with a baby in her arms after an American plane hit a remote Fenland farmhouse. She is taping her life story -- which rapidly turns into a confession about the events surrounding the crash.

Add to this a man's body found in a remote wartime pillbox, a suspected abduction and date rape of a student by a sleazebag making porn films, illegal immigrants working on farms and an enigmatic American airman, and Dryden finds himself with a lot of bizarre links to investigate if he is to keep a promise to Maggie and to scoop the press pack for a front page lead.

You'll need to pay attention at the back as to who did what to whom. But within pages you'll be convinced that you're in Laura's claustrophobic hospital room or bumping along bleak Cambridgeshire roads in the back of taxi driver Humph's Ford Capri in the searing heat.

Humph is an unconventional taxi driver with his cramped two-door car, his unwillingness to leave its confines, and the fact that Dryden is one of his very few customers. The others, such as they are, appear to be people travelling to Stanstead Airport who pay Humph in miniature bottles of alcohol which sustain our heroes during their adventures.

The book has some slightly disconcerting point of view wobbles, but not enough to throw you out of the story. And once or twice I felt Kelly's oddball characters were verging on the stereotypical, such as the press pack who descend on the area once a murder hunt has been announced. But otherwise the eccentricities of Dryden, Humph and US Air Force Major August Sondheim -- a man with a drink problem and a half -- make THE FIRE BABY the force that it is.

This isn't a roll-around the floor, 'nurse, my sides' sort of book. But Kelly's dry wit and his ability to skewer a person or scene with a phrase (I adored the throwaway comment about the spherical Humph: "He loved diet sandwiches: hundreds of them.") show him to be one of the most individual, inventive and talented new crime writers around.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, December 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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