What burns within WHAT BURNS WITHIN is Sandra Ruttan. There is, among the six or seven sub-plots, a story about arson, and the title could also refer to personal hells, but what really burns, with a cold intensity, is Ruttan’s seriousness, the clarity of her intent, the laser-like precision she brings to the process of saying that the truth is subjective and the universe is pitilessly indifferent, so let’s roll up our sleeves and do something about it.
The characters who roll up their sleeves here are RCMP officers Craig, Tain and Ashlyn, who begin the story investigating child abductions and potentially related arsons and rape cases in the Vancouver area. The trio’s complex history is explored as the three main stories weave together, although Ruttan is clever enough to use this material to propel the story forwards rather than rely on flashbacks and digressions that might slow the scintillating pace.
Short and snappy chapters, terse dialogue, staccato delivery of minimalist description – Ruttan’s style harks back to the classic hardboiled era, although she’s more Horace McCoy than James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammet. McCoy, like Jim Thompson, always had bigger fish to fry, and told more than tales rooted in criminality. As with Thompson, and Ruttan, McCoy was fascinated by conflict, its roots and possible resolutions, and particularly the conflicts of the mind (WHAT BURNS WITHIN also engages with notions of justice and forgiveness, religious extremism and secular self-sacrifice, damaged sexuality and the abuse of power). And yet Ruttan is very much a shower rather than a teller: there are very few internal monologues to be heard in WHAT BURNS WITHIN, the subtleties of the characters’ complex psychologies being drawn out through their interactions with their colleagues. That’s a difficult skill to make invisible, but it’s one of Ruttan’s most effective weapons.
It’s a war out there. Writers wage war on the credibility of the reader with every weapon they have, and most crime writers do so by having their characters go into battle in a quixotic, unwinnable war against criminality. Sandra Ruttan has gone to war under a banner of honesty, bringing an integrity to the genre that results in a bleakly depicted but ultimately compassionate, fascinating and meticulously researched police procedural that dares to say that we – as a community, city, society or culture – are entitled to believe we can become better people. – Declan Burke
(A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: The Grand Vizier would like it to be known that Sandra Ruttan has previously reviewed THE BIG O, thus raising issues of log-rolling and mutual back-scratching, most of which are discussed at length here.)
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.