Karen Sandler – Clean Burn

karensandler-cleanburn“No child should ever stay missing…”

Wry, smart, tough private eye Janelle Watkins swore off investigating child abductions four years ago, when she left the San Francisco PD.

But when two clients with missing children beg for her help, Janelle can’t say no. Even though it means returning to the scene of her nightmares – her hometown of Greenville.

Forced to enlist the help of her ex-partner and ex-lover, Greenville County Sheriff Ken Heinz, Janelle soon finds herself playing with fire in more than one way, and in a race against the clock to find the missing children before it’s too late.

If Janet Evanovich and the Cohen Brothers ever sat down to collaborate on a story, then this is exactly the kind of incredible novel they might come up with – one full of twists and turns and memorable characters…

Isn’t it about time you met the unforgettable Janelle Watkins?

Kay Scarpetta, Jane Rizolli, Maura Isles, Kate Beckett, Alex Cooper, Barbara Havers, Teresa Lisbon, these are all women cut from the same cloth as Clean Burn‘s protagonist Janelle Watkins. They’re tough, if not fearless then certainly able to ignore their fear, and they are tenacious in their pursuit of justice. They are also one and all flawed in some profound way, whether it’s Rizolli’s traumatic experiences at the hands of The Surgeon, Beckett’s enduring search for her mother’s murderer, or Havers’ quick temper. For Janelle it’s an unhealthy fascination with fire and a tendency to burn herself to deal with stress and emotional pain, thanks to an abusive childhood. I love a good whodunit, especially police procedurals or narratives on the edges of those and Clean Burn gives you exactly that. Watkins isn’t a cop any longer, but she still thinks like one, while at the same time not being bound by the same narrow rules as her former colleagues. It makes for an exciting book, with some whirlwind twists and complications and one I enjoyed tremendously. 

Janelle Watkins is a compelling character. She’s dark and broken and sees herself as irreparable, unworthy and unlovable. Haunted by a miserable childhood and the memories of the children she couldn’t save during her career as a police officer, she turns to self-harm to find relief, whether it’s the aforementioned burning or by drinking herself into oblivion. She’s a sympathetic character even if she’s not always good. She is self-destructive and nowhere does Sandler bring this to the fore more than in her relationship with her ex-partner Ken. He’s a decent, stand-up guy—apart from cheating on his wife with Janelle, before moving away to save his marriage and breaking Janelle’s heart in the process. I like that Sandler showed us the aftermath of the ‘partners falling in love and getting it on’-cliché so prevalent in today’s crime TV shows – Booth and Bones, Beckett and Castle, and Mulder and Scully, to name a few – and not the happily ever after kind, but she shows us what happens when they don’t make it. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty. As Watkins herself says, there is a reason they always tell you not to get involved with your partner. The other important character that looks set to be a recurring one is Janelle’s assistant Sheri. Part secretary, part friend, she’s spunky and doesn’t let Janelle get away with her bad behaviour and she’s the one that occasionally challenges Janelle’s conscience and makes her go back into the fray that burned her and to take cases that might hurt, but are truly worthwhile. These three make a solid core surrounded by some interesting secondary characters.

The plot is interesting. I liked the juxtaposition of this big city PI in a small-town community. Especially as it’s her own community and everyone and their horse knows her or her daddy. The small town mind set was very convincing and I loved the fact that there were so many things hidden despite everyone supposedly knowing everything about each other. Sandler also manages to throw in a couple of huge loops which were awesome. A lot of the tension in the detecting strand of the narrative comes from the way the story is told. While the book is mainly told from Watkins’ perspective, it’s interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the abductor and one of the missing children, which was very effective. It not just served to up the tension, it also served to misdirect. Every time they visited a house, I was wondering whether the boy would later tell us he’d heard them. At one point I was convinced I knew who did it, only to have Sandler pull the wool over my eyes.

I really enjoyed Clean Burn; Janelle is interesting and the plotting clever and intelligent (no, those aren’t the same thing) and the ending quite satisfying. There is even a dash of romance thrown in for good measure, without it taking over the plot. In all it made for a compelling read and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Janelle Watkins and friends.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.