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What Burns Within

A Nolan, Hart, and Tain Mystery by Sandra Ruttan

What Burns Within by Sandra Ruttan

Review: Set in British Columbia's Greater Vancouver District Tri-Cities of Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, Canadian author Sandra Ruttan's novel, What Burns Within, provides an insider's view of arson investigations and police procedurals for child abduction, rape and murder. It's a spellbinding rapid-fire story of cops and firefighters pitted against a religious psychopath who makes Alfred Hitchcock's Norman Bates look like a choirboy.

Ruttan's novel is a series debut with intermittent flashbacks to an earlier case that has left the three protagonists here, Craig Nolan, Ashlyn Hart, and a First Nations cop known as Tain, recalling its horrific details, musing about their individual traumas and replaying a cover-up by one of them in order to protect the other two. Now reunited, they're facing the urgent and distasteful tasks of solving a series of child abductions, arsons, rapes and murders while simultaneously grappling with their feelings towards each other, a father-son relationship, the actions of an unreliable partner, and the bureaucracy of their local police and fire departments as well as the finger-pointing politics between adjacent jurisdictions.

Told over a five-day span (Saturday to the following Wednesday), the story begins with the blink-of-an-eyelash disappearance of a child and the frantic search that follows. Then, there's an arson with the charred remains of a child's body and an angel tacked outside, "just like before." Next, a rape is reported. And while the investigations continue, threads painstakingly emerge linking the crimes to each other and to investigations in nearby locations involving other police forces with back and forth blame about missed assignments. The characters evolve through their relationships to each other, including a romantic attraction between two of them and a definite dislike between another two who are forced to team up until one of them is savagely raped and then begins to disrupt the investigation. Sparks fly between senior police officers and between them and their stubborn subordinates determined to find the kidnapper, arsonist and murderer by doing whatever it takes, including the occasional bending of rules and ignoring of laws. One volunteers to be the bait in a life-and-death sting and another goes undercover in the local fire station.

Throughout, the story's suspense is paramount. Ruttan has a masterful way of withholding details until just the right moment for the maximum manipulation of tension. Readers are left guessing for most of the book, for example, about the villain even though the killer's actions and motivations in stalking the victims are well and frighteningly described throughout. Ruttan's also adept at planting suspects and even false crimes, and she knows how to plunge fear into a reader's heart. Particularly chilling are the descriptions of three young female captives, starved and whipped into submission and performing pseudo-religious rituals and chants as one is being prepared for purification in a baptism by fire. The judicious intercutting between scenes and characters also plays exceptionally well for the accelerated pace of the story and to enhance the reader's interest as the novel races to its cathartic conclusion.

What Burns Within is doubly rewarding. Once, as a first-class mystery to be read on its own. And secondly as an exciting debut for a promising series from an obviously talented writer who at age 13 had her first newspaper column and now edits the online Spinetingler Magazine and has her own website at

Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham ( for contributing his review of What Burns Within.

Review Copyright © 2008 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with Permission

Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author

Mystery Book Review: The Frailty of Flesh by Sandra RuttanThe Frailty of Flesh
Dorchester (Mass Market Paperback), October 2008
ISBN-13: 9780843960754; ISBN-10: 0843960752

Location(s) referenced in What Burns Within: Vancouver, British Columbia

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What Burns Within by Sandra Ruttan

What Burns Within by A Nolan, Hart, and Tain Mystery

Publisher: Dorchester
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-0-8439-6074-7
Publication Date:
List Price: $7.99

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