February 18, 2009
The societal theme of DEAD TIME, Bland’s first novel, was homeless children. In SLOW BURN, her second novel, in which detectives Marti McAlister and Vik Jessenovik investigate arson and murder, the societal theme is again children.
After fire destroys a clinic owned by Dr. James Edwards, the bodies of a twelve-year-old Black girl and the Hispanic receptionist are discovered in the debris. As if two bodies weren’t enough, Marti and Vik also investigate the suspicious death of a young man who was hit by a car and thrown down an embankment. Their caseload grows even bigger when an elderly woman is found dead in her basement, under suspicious circumstances since nothing was stolen from her house.
What causes Marti and Vik to begin an emotional slow burn as their investigation progresses is evidence that a known pimp operating in the Midwest may be furnishing twelve-year-old Black girls to older men in Lincoln Prairie. Two incidents further complicate the case. The pimp is shot and the body of the wife of the leader of the child prostitution ring is found in the couple’s home.
SLOW BURN peeks into class difference in Black American culture based on skin color. In the scene describing Marti’s interview with Dr. Edwards’s wife about the fire, Mrs. Edwards is described as having “light brown hair” that “was clipped in a short pixielike style. Her eyes were hazel, the tilt of her nose pert. She could pass for white if she wanted to, her skin was so light.”
As Marti is leaving, Mrs. Edwards says, “Sometimes you people surprise me.” Marti hates the term “you People” and takes an instant dislike to Mrs. Edwards but maintains her cool professionalism while listening to her complain about how lower class Blacks resent “blacks at our level” for not helping the poor and gives Marti a lecture on how poor Blacks having children deprive “wanted children” of resources.
We also get some indication of Marti’s emotional condition and reason for leaving a higher paying job on the Chicago police force to move to Lincoln Prairie:
Marti had not expected the ethnic diversity that she found in Lincoln Prairie. Swedes, Finns, Germans, Hispanics, Filipinos, West Indians, and African Americans coexisted with little overt friction. A nearby church celebrated occasional Croatian or Serbian masses as well as a mass in Spanish each. Sunday. She liked living in a place where her kids could go to public schools that represented so many cultures.
In Chicago they had attended a predominantly black private school where drugs and gangs weren't part of the curriculum. Now that the two high schools were going to merge, she was concerned about the impact of three thousand students at one facility. She was worried, too, about the increase in drug and gang activity here. But overall, the move out of Chicago was a good one for her children, even if real reason she came here was to have a quiet place to brood over Johnny's death.
She is “angry with the entire Chicago police force. Because they hadn’t protected him.” She does not believe he committed suicide. We can expect to read in future novels more about Johnny’s death and its affect on Marti and the children.
The personal information about the central character, homicide detective Marti McAlister, gives the novel authenticity and makes us want to read more about this strong Black woman who must balance her time between a very dangerous job and her children.