Alan Russell is the mystery writer's mystery writer. BURNING MAN may be his best, and certainly most nuanced novel yet. It has been nearly a decade since his last novel, POLITICAL SUICIDE; this book clearly signals a return of a gifted author.
Even before the fire that propels him into the pantheon of a true hero, Detective Michael Gideon has enough baggage to fill a transcontinental airline flight. His wife has died, he blames himself for her death, he was a foundling raised by adoptive parents...so when he and his partner, police dog Sirius (named for the dog star) head into a flame choked canyon in pursuit of a serial killer dubbed the Santa Ana Strangler, there is more than a hint that it wouldn't matter one way or the other if he comes out alive at the other end. After the fire, more baggage: rehabilitation, compression suit, scarred face, and skin grafts. Gideon suffers post traumatic stress and he is plagued by nightmares so vivid that he wakes with blistered skin.
The capture of Ellis Haines, the serial killer, is dramatic. Both Gideon and Sirius are shot and wounded. The only way out of the fire is to elicit the help of Haines to assist in carrying Sirius out of the fire, at gunpoint. All three are horribly burned. Haines is eventually tried and convicted, sentenced to death, and doing his time in San Quentin. Gideon and Sirius rehab and after a year return to duty. The police chief creates a position for Gideon, Special Cases Unit, a roving investigator who is assigned to particularly incendiary cases. The best part, though officially retired as a K9 officer, Sirius remains Gideon's partner.
Two of these cases now have Gideon's full attention. An abandoned child is found in the shadow of Angel's Flight, the world's shortest railroad (and the scene and title of a Michael Connelly novel featuring Harry Bosch.) She has suffocated, the slight incline and gravity pressing her into the bedding. Though the mother had taken the time to dress her in pink knitted booties and wrapped her for the weather, the death was accidental. The abandonment was not. On the same day Gideon is called to the scene of a horrific murder. A teenager has been killed, shot in the eye in Runyon Canyon Park, and then crucified. The teen, Paul Klein, son of a Hollywood producer who leverages his son's death to promote his upcoming movie, was not a model citizen. He was a serial bully. Mixed in with these two cases is an obligation to the FBI, he meets monthly with Haines, who will only talk to the policeman who captured him. Haines quotes Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", but it is really the "Secret Sharer" that binds the two men. They literally walked through fire together.
Russell introduces a number of great characters: Lisbet, who buries the dead, abandoned children of Los Angeles, Father Pat, the Catholic priest who finds the foundling Gideon under a pile leaves outside the church, Dottie, the wise-cracking clerk at the Monastery of the Angels, and Sister Frances, the 89-year old abbess who offers advice and counsel without betraying confidences. And then there is Gideon's next-door neighbor and sometimes dog-sitter, Seth, whose license plate reads "Shaman."
Whenever approaching a mystery where a featured character is an animal, I bring a full load of skepticism. I have never seen a cat solve a mystery, though you can read an entire series where a feline does exactly that. Russell handles the relationship between Sirius and Gideon with a sense of realism that rings true.
There is the patent Russell dialogue, rapid fire, pitch-perfect, distinct. Be forewarned, Gideon describes his humor to the Chief of Police as puerile, and there are more than a few groaners.
The ending of this book hints at a sequel. There is still unfinished business between Gideon and Haines.
BURNING MAN is a police procedural long on character, plot, and sense of place.