Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review: Fire Sign by M. A. Petterson

Dr. Anja Toussaint is a woman with secrets. Large areas of her skin are covered in burn scars, yet for reasons known only to her, she is compelled by fire. As the arson investigator for the police department in an anonymous city under the Fire Marshal’s office of an un-named state, she utilizes her impressive knowledge of the mechanics of fire and her almost empathetic understanding of the arsonist mentality to stop and to hopefully capture those who are pathologically driven to burn things.

When the same timed and carefully-placed method is used to burn several churches, Anja is teamed with Sgt, Gil Dolan, a bitter and less-than-ept career cop who acts as her liaison so that she might have access to the evidence. The two have an unamicable history which colors their team dynamic in a way I’ve never encountered in fiction before.

Fire Sign by M. A. Petterson is a novella which serves as introduction to a series which promises to thrill and entertain for several novels to come. The characters are dark and nuanced in a way that makes them fascinating and realistic, but I doubt that I’d want to invite any of them to a picnic, but that’s okay. The descriptions of the fires and the explanations of the science are very well-handled. In a very short space, Petterson manages to build a complete world with solid back story, intricate office politics, and interesting possibilities for the future.

Petterson has firefighting training from time spent in the maritime services, although eye problems prevented M.A. from continuing to peruse it as a career. However clearly the training and experience “took” well enough that the book has a clear voice of authority.

They say that a story should only be as long as the space needed to tell it, and I generally agree, but I feel that Fire Sign may have been just a bit too short for its own good. While each page is well developed and fascinating, and even though the story has a completed arc, there were aspects which could have been better fleshed out. I also feel it could have benefited from a more thorough denouement. I don’t want to give anything away, but things happen to the Gil character during the climax that needed to be explained. Specifically, how did he get from point A to point B and then from B to C. He just seems to show up.

Petterson is donating a portion of each sale to several camps for burned children through a self-created charity called Anja’s Kids. Full disclosure, my own daughter was burned on her face at the age of five when a candle’s flame caught her hair. She has a large scar on her forehead which she can usually disguise with her bangs, but many other children are less fortunate. My daughter has attended one such camp in the past, and benefitted greatly. These camps offer burned children a safe place to share stories, build friendships and move on with the understanding that they are not alone. So, while I would normally complain that $2.99 is too much to charge for a novella this brief, given the objective and the destination of the funds, maybe Petterson is not charging enough.

You can purchase Fire Sign at Amazon, and you can find out more about Anja and Anja's Kids at The next book in the series, Soot Angel, is due in September.

   O’Reilly joins me as I sit in the observation booth. The burn-building is packed with closed-circuit television cameras and microphones. I intend on monitoring Dolan carefully. I don’t want to kill the pathetic sergeant, just motivate him to scuttle off somewhere far from me.
   “Friend of yours?” O’Reilly asks.
   I just smile and activate the cameras and mikes. Every hallway and every room is now portrayed in gray on the monitors. They should spring for color, I think, but I know the budget is tight.
   Dolan stands alone in the vacant hallway, staring down a simulated motel hallway lined with doors on either side. I can hear him breathing through the mask, calmly and evenly. That will soon change.
I toggle the switch initiating the exercise.
   A sudden whoosh breaks the silence as flames gush out of a doorway halfway down the hall.
   “Oh, yeah,” Dolan says. “Let the party begin.”
   He strides to the first door and rattles the knob, but it is locked. Then he slams the Halligan tool between the door and sill and wrenches it open.
   I watch his progress on another monitor.
   “Hey,” he calls out. “Anyone here?”
   He sweeps the room quickly, looks inside the bathroom closet, but the room is empty. He jogs back into the hall.
   The air roils with smoke now.
   Dolan reaches another door, pounds on it, tries the knob. The door swings open.
   He enters and spots a figure in the corner, slumped in an overstuffed chair, long auburn hair drooping over the head.
   “Score one for the gipper,” Dolan says, racing to the rescue.
   He reaches down and soon finds he’s cradling a skeleton wearing a wig and dress. A cigarette dangles from bony fingers, touching the scorched armrest.

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