What do you do when someone's murder is made to look like the thousands of other deaths occurring in London, caused by a mysterious influenza-like plague?
If you're Stevie Flint in A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh, you try to find the murderer, even though around you the city is morphing. As plague takes over London, Stevie finds herself heading deeper into dying capital on the trail of the person or people who killed her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey.
A Lovely Way to Burn is a crime novel set in present day London. Everything we know and love and hate is there - tourists, hip nightspots, mundane jobs, boyfriends who stand you up. When Simon fails to show for a date, Stevie is rightly annoyed, and it's a few days before she decides to head to his flat and get her stuff back. Instead she finds Simon dead in bed, seemingly of natural causes.
Before she can think about it too much, Stevie is struck down by something flu-like. Welsh dedicates pages to Stevie's illness and her slow recovery. We learn about the plague before we even know its name - The Sweats - and we also learn just how tough Stevie is from how she survives, not just physically, but also mentally. It's clever of Welsh to give Stevie the plague so early, it tells us so much about Stevie's no nonsense, independent character that we otherwise could have wasted chapters learning about.
A former journalist turned shopping channel saleswoman, Stevie isn't your typical detective, but she's forced to become one when no one else will take up the task of finding Smon's murderer(s). Her lack of investigative power is more than made up for by her bravery - there were plenty of times when I found myself just wanting to reach into the pages and hold Stevie back from where she was going. But that tension Welsh creates really works - I was utterly hooked even as I dreaded what was coming next.
Welsh constructs an intelligent mystery within the pages of A Lovely Way to Burn, which had me guessing this way and that as to the identity of Simon's killer or killers, and his/her/their motives. Every time I thought I'd figured it out, I began to doubt myself because Stevie encountered a new piece of evidence, or I remembered something that had happened or had been mentioned pages before. Even at the very end, when it came to the big reveal, Welsh threw in some surprises.
A Lovely Way to Burn is primarily a crime novel, but it also explores dystopian London, and the issues that a rapidly changing world would bring. Stevie investigates Simon's murder herself because there are few police around to do so - those that aren't ill or haven't already died of the plague are exhausted from working non-stop. Resources are thin on the ground, and policing becomes about fighting blazes rather than anything proactive.
The plague also leads to deserted streets, the army locking things down and a curfew being instituted, and people fleeing their homes in the city for the countryside, in the hopes the plague won't follow them there. Welsh shows us glimpses of reactions to the plague (which has struck across the world) but there are plenty of questions to be answered in the next books following A Lovely Way to Burn in The Plague Times trilogy. We see no direct government response (although I assume the army and the curfew is down to them) and we see very little about how the rest of the world is reacting, or how places outside London are coping (if everyone in London heads to the countryside, doesn't that just become another London?).
A Lovely Way to Burn is a brilliant crime novel set in a slightly dystopian world. It's close enough to what we know to be utterly terrifying (remember H5N1?), and that was part of its hold on me. As I read it on the train, I was ultra sensitive to every person around me who coughed or sneezed or even so much as sniffed. Welsh has taken our everyday lives, given them a twist, and put them in the background of an intriguing, addictive novel.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Hodder. This in no way affected my review.
•A Lovely Way to Burn is out on March 20, 2014.