If Bonfire has already sparked your interest, it’s no doubt because you’ve heard this debut author’s name before.
Krysten Ritter – who is best-known as the “hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman” in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, as well as her work on cult favourite Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Breaking Bad – is something of an overachiever.
Not content with starring in arguably the best screen adaptation of any Marvel comic, and gaining a loyal Instagram following for pictures of her knitting projects and adorable dog, Ritter has now written a book.
This isn’t a ghostwritten, co-authored, or otherwise thinly veiled autobiography, either. Bonfire is a crime thriller – and it’s a solid book, if not a burning success.
It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and tried to forget her small town roots in Barrens, Indiana. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she is drawn back home when she is tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the conglomerate that acts as the beating, economic heart of the town; even as it pumps poison into its rivers.
But there’s another reason Abby has come back, and that’s because she can’t forget what happened to her childhood friend turned high school tormentor: Kaycee Mitchell, the girl who 10 years earlier faked an illness and claimed she was poisoned by Optimal Plastics, before disappearing forever. But was Kaycee faking it, or was she really sick? And are the honchos at Optimal Plastics the only people in Abby’s hometown hiding something?
Ritter is a very capable writer, which makes up for the appearance of some of those Gone Girl on a Secret Train with a Butterfly Tattoo tropes, like booze-fuelled memory gaps, and mean girls from high school who are Pretty Little Liars levels of damaged and dangerous.
She captures unexpected details of rural American towns dependent on manufacturing for their livelihood, and observations about the people who live there all their lives. It makes sense when you learn that she grew up there herself. Her descriptions of other characters, although sparse, paint them in broad brushstrokes. They are often defined more by their presence, or how they make Abby feel, than described by the colour of their hair.
One character for who detailed physical descriptions are notably absent is Abby – perhaps because there aren’t any E. L. James-esque scenes of the protagonist looking at herself in the mirror, and describing her unhappiness with her looks for the sake of the reader.
As a result, if you’re familiar with Ritter’s acting work, you’ll likely picture the author as the protagonist, with some Jessica Jones mannerisms thrown in for good measure. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ritter’s own production company, Silent Machine – formed to highlight complex female characters – already has a Bonfire miniseries in the works.)
Bonfire is also ambitiously twisty, so busy that at times it almost loses the plot. The enjoyment while reading comes not so much from seeing how Abby Williams is going to untangle the mystery; but rather, from seeing how Ritter is going to weave the various narrative threads together to create a cohesive picture. The conclusion is more than satisfying enough to make the seemingly disparate mysteries worthwhile.
Where Bonfire burns the brightest, is with its female lead. She may be an instantly recognisable character, familiar through other mediums, but it doesn’t decrease the pleasure that comes from reading about a strong, smart woman tackling problems head-on.
Abby is independent, determined and tenacious. Her refusal to bend to the expectations of the small town she grew up in is as overtly feminist as the book’s denouement – which explicitly criticizes a society that sexualizes girls and objectifies women, viewing them as body parts rather than people.
Bring on the television miniseries.
Melissa Wellham works in social media by day, and writes science-fiction by night. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissawellham