Four women dead and a serial killer on the loose—we’ve read it all before. But wait! This familiar opening scenario is just a jumping-off point for London author Jane Casey’s U.S. debut novel, The Burning. After the discovery of a fifth victim, we’re off and running in a totally new direction. The work of the quadruple killer, though it hangs around throughout the book like a thorn in the side, turns out to be secondary to the main plot.

The M.O. of the fifth murder, that of the young and talented Rebecca Haworth, differs in crucial forensic ways from the other four, so Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan and her superiors treat it as a murder unto itself. Casey’s considerable talent lies in discovering a new trail that readers will follow eagerly as she draws each character closer into our circle of interest.

The action develops via the alternating thoughts of detective Kerrigan and those of Louise, Rebecca’s best friend. Instead of focusing on the drama and gory details surrounding a serial killer’s deeds, the book morphs into a page-turner as readers learn about Rebecca’s former life and seeming successes. The author is adept at creating a drama that is rich with details about the victim—her doting parents; a liberal assortment of doomed affairs with the opposite sex, including the handsome and cruel Gil; and her friends and fellow workers, effusive in their praise for the victim.

Rebecca’s early years as a student at Oxford were marred by a traumatic and unexplained death; her later relationships with men turned murky; and prior to her death she began an inexplicable slide into drug addiction. Detective Kerrigan, struggling with her own vulnerability and image within the department, undertakes the complicated process of merging these fragments into a whole cloth.

The Burning stands apart from others in the genre by virtue of its deft characterizations and engrossing backstory. What looks like a thriller and starts out as a gory crime scene morphs into a compulsively readable character study by a writer I hope will return for another spin with her witty and perceptive detective.

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