Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"What Burns Within"

Sandra Ruttan is the author of Suspicious Circumstances. She is also an editor with Spinetingler Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Pulp Pusher, Crimespree Magazine and Out of the Gutter.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, What Burns Within, and reported the following:
Readers opening to page 69 would probably go to page 68, because there’s a section break half way down where a new scene starts.

Tain coughed. “How can you stand working these fires? This air is toxic.”

“Bit like kissing a smoker.”

“You mean licking an ashtray.”

Ashlyn wrinkled her nose at him. “Spare me the details, Tain.”

“I don’t know how they can stand it.”

“Doubt it bothers the smokers at all.”

He glared at her. “I meant the firefighters.”

“That’s what they have a breathing apparatus for. And that’s why they try to keep civilians back.”

They watched as a firefighter climbed a ladder to the building and tried to take out a window. As the pane gave way, smoke shot out, and then the firefighter disappeared inside the building.

“Give me a good old- fashioned criminal with a gun or a machete any day,” Tain said.

Ashlyn tried to suppress her desire to laugh and failed. Finally she managed to sputter out one word: “Wimp.”

“Call it heightened self- preservation. You have to be wired wrong to want to run into a building that’s engulfed in flames.”

“And it’s perfectly normal to chase wanted criminals down dark alleys, knowing they have a weapon and aren’t afraid to use it?”

He shrugged. “It’s still better odds. So what do you do when you get called to these? Besides provide the entertainment.”

She felt her eyebrow arch as she folded her arms and glared at him. Even under the streaks of soot on his face she could tell his cheeks paled.

“Well, let’s just put it this way, Ashlyn. The boys seem to like having you around.”

She almost smiled as she rolled her eyes. “Jealous?”

“Why? You sleeping with one of them?”

Her retort caught in her throat, and she coughed. “Even if I was, it would be none of your business.” Her gaze fell on a group of men standing by the pumper truck. They quickly averted their eyes when they saw her looking at them.

“There isn’t much I can do while they’re fighting the fire, obviously. They actually have teams that come in after the fire is out and do a complete evaluation, check for accelerants, survey the area for evidence. The insurance companies swarm over the area too, hoping they can find ways to mitigate their liability. I get a stack of reports to go through, look for witnesses, and once it’s confirmed as an arson, I sift through the evidence and hopefully come up with a lead.”

“If the bulk of your work happens after the fact, why do you come to the scene?”

“You really don’t get it, do you?”

“What? You want to distract these upstanding fellows from their work?”

Ashlyn fought the urge to smack him. “No. A high percentage of arsonists are firefighters.”

“I always thought that was a myth.”


“Isn’t it like saying that a high percentage of criminals are police officers?” Tain shrugged. “Okay, we both know that some police officers are crooked. We both know it firsthand. It just seemed like a simplistic way of excusing the fact that there’s a low closure rate for arson cases.”

“That’s because arsonists are exceptionally difficult to profile. I mean, there’s your standard insurance fraud. That’s usually easy enough to prove, or at least certify in your mind, even if you don’t have the evidence for a solid case. Particularly if the person torches the place themselves. They have a better chance of getting away with it if they hire a professional to do the job, but then, if they hire someone, they risk leaving a trail. It’s never foolproof.

“These cases, though, you have to try to figure out what’s motivating this guy, why he chooses these buildings. There might not even be a reason. It could be just as simple as spotting an empty building and having the stuff he needs on hand.”

Page 69 reflects the tone well. The banter between Ashlyn and Tain is woven in with the serious conversations about their investigations. My ex-husband is a firefighter, and off-colour jokes are a common coping mechanism emergency services professionals use when dealing with stressful cases. I wanted to reflect that reality through the characters in this book.

The shots exchanged hint at the history between Ashlyn and Tain, the undercurrent of tension that bubbles and threatens to erupt as they cope with the reality of working together again. They also hint at the fact that Ashlyn and Tain are finding the cases tough, and looking for a way to cope.

When I wrote What Burns Within, one of the things that struck me was how much I like Ashlyn. I’ve always enjoyed writing male protagonists, and both Craig Nolan (the third protagonist in this series) and Tain have given great material to work with because they’re complex and I find them intriguing. My female characters have been more challenging for me to relate to, because I was a tomboy, but Ashlyn is an intriguing mix of tough and vulnerable. She’s intelligent and has great instincts, and she’s also a woman who holds her own in a career field still largely dominated by men. Ashlyn wrestles with her own emotions, almost seeing them as a weakness, and tries to control them. I think it’s hard for women to know how to allow their feminine attributes to work for them in career fields that have been traditionally dominated by men, but when Ashlyn interacts with children in the book she uses her natural strengths to help with the investigation.

This is important, as are the slightly sexist jabs Tain makes, because unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality – in particular towards women – are at the core of the investigations. That’s the canvas the book is written on. Ashlyn’s balancing act serves as a microcosm for the larger issues at the heart of the crimes, although it should be noted that I don’t try to hit the reader over the head with the connections or get on a soap box. The themes are the undercurrent, the backdrop this fast-paced procedural thriller is set against.
Learn more about Sandra Ruttan and What Burns Within at her website and her blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue