Burn This Night by Alex Kenna Book Review

Mired in the midst of an emotional minefield, Los Angeles private investigator Kate Myles struggles to gain control of her thoughts and emotions while trying to solve two murders, one recent and the other decades old, in a town full of dark secrets before she becomes the next victim.

The life of Kate Myles is a hot mess. “I’m a pathologically messy ex-cop-turned-private-eye with flaming ADHD.”

After an on-duty vehicle accident while she was a cop left her with a debilitating spinal injury and an addiction to prescription painkillers, her ex-husband John divorced her and gained custody of their daughter Amelia. Free of her opiate addiction, Kate is determined to control her drinking and to get her life in order so she can battle for the custody of her daughter. The last thing Kate needs is having her world upended again by the accidental discovery her dad was not her dad. She learns her mother had conceived her with help from a fertility clinic and an anonymous sperm donor. The family history she had grown up with was mostly fiction.

When her mother refuses to talk about it beyond sharing a few basic facts, reeling from the discovery, Kate turns to a genealogy website in desperation to learn something about her paternal genetic background. There she discovers two possible distant cousins and reaches out to them.

It turns out a possible male cousin is not a relative at all, but a sheriff’s department homicide investigator who had submitted a suspect’s DNA to the website hoping to solve a twenty-year-old murder case. Knowing the investigator, Kate agrees to meet with him and his partner. They convince her to help them with the case when they sweeten the deal by getting her a paying job to investigate a recent murder in the same town where the cold case murder they are investigating occurred. Kate moves temporarily to a rental cabin in Idlewood, a picturesque mountain resort town an hour and half from Los Angeles that she had visited many times as a child on family vacations.

In Idlewood, Kate meets her client, an attorney representing the family of a woman recently murdered, when an arsonist set fire to her home. Both the family and the attorney seem convinced the victim’s brother, Jacob Coburn, who the police have already arrested, is the killer. Kate’s job is to prove Jacob’s meth addiction and existing mental illness triggered a psychotic breakdown that caused him to kill his sister so that a court might sentence him to a psychiatric facility instead of prison.

While investigating the recent murder, Kate also works on the cold case homicide as she continues battling her personal demons, including the struggle to make sense of things surrounding her true heritage. She combs the area for possible relatives, partly as an integral part of unraveling the truth about the twenty-year-old-murder, but also hoping to find answers to her own questions and maybe even her biological father, although she isn’t certain how far down the rabbit hole it will all take her. Then, as the investigations progress, things take a sinister and dangerous turn.

Burn This Night is a fast-paced detective mystery that, besides crime, explores themes of disillusionment, family, heartbreak of betrayal, identity crisis, and isolation. The plot is intelligent, and the dialogue is sharp.

Kate Myles is a complex character. Here she continues the struggle to rebound from the fallout from her failed marriage, opioid addiction, and alcohol abuse, the issues she battled in Kenna’s debut novel, What Meets the Eye, where we first met Kate.

The complexity of the character derives from a dichotomy. We sometimes see Kate as the prototypical strong, independent female protagonist we’ve come to expect in contemporary fiction, someone we can admire and root for. At other times, she seems to occupy such a knife edge of emotional vulnerability that she seems in constant danger of falling completely apart. Here, it’s hard to feel anything more than sympathy for Kate, and she doesn’t seem very heroic. “My muscles felt jerky and my vision blurred. I was breathing fast, like I was trying to outrun someone. Feeling like I might throw up, I pulled over by the side of the road, leaned over, and rested my hands on my thighs. The sun beat down on my back as I breathed in the hot, syrupy air.”

Despite the pronounced contradictions of her nature, Kate is never off-putting. It’s what makes her seem like a real person and allows us to connect with her on an emotive level. Her thoughts and actions make sense in the given situations she faces.

Kenna tells the story in alternating timelines and with alternating first-person narrators. Besides Kate as the primary narrator, Kenna puts us into the heads of the recent murder victim, Abby Coburn (before her death), her sister Grace, and their brother Jacob. This gives the reader valuable insight needed into the story and helps acquaint us with these other main supporting characters. It also helps us understand the dynamics of the Coburn family, an integral part of the story. A detective mystery is only as good as its characters. This one has got some great ones.

Kenna set a high bar with her Kate Myles debut novel, What Meets the Eye. This often makes it hard to satisfy the high expectations of readers with a second novel. But that’s not a problem here. As much as I liked the first book, I enjoyed this one even more because of the continued transformation of Kate Myles over the course of this second story.

Burn This Night delivers a near pitch perfect plot, we’ve got characters to care about, and the unique Kate Myles’ identity crisis piece and a little romance combine to make the book unexpectedly uplifting. Mystery, Detective & Suspense readers are going to leave satisfied. I certainly did, and look forward to meeting Kate Myles again.

I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for consideration of a review. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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