Jack McMorrow is a news writer, a journalist, living in Maine. At home, he's an active dad of Sophie, the preschool daughter he and his wife Roxanne are raising. But every now and then, and this is one of those months, he's got to step back into his work shoes and develop a long story that the New York Times will pay big bucks for, complete with sidebars and insight. His wife Roxanne's newly done with her career slot -- or at least she's supposed to be -- but one of her last actions as a social worker for the State of Maine has just turned into a blame-fest of a child's death and a furious mom, and there are newspaper reporters -- not Jack -- calling the house for comment.
One of my favorite things about reading Gerry Boyle's mysteries is that even when his protagonist is an "amateur sleuth" like Jack McMorrow, stepping over the line into pursuing the truth about a crime himself instead of just watching and recording it, the decisions up front are smart, not stupid. Jack's not the kind of person to neglect to lock a door when he knows there's a criminal around, and he's a loyal more-than-friend to his neighbor and ex-military operator Clair and Clair's wife Mary. Strong and savvy in the ways of violent criminals -- from his Vietnam war past -- Clair is even more protective of Jack's family than Jack is.
Which makes ONCE BURNED an extra scary book, because there are three people -- at least -- trying to force Jack and Roxanne to back away from their work and integrity, and all are threatening not just Jack, not just Roxanne, but little Sophie. And even Clair is getting challenged, trying to keep up the defense.
The book races into action from the start: There's an arsonist tearing apart the magazine-glow image of the little town of Sanctuary, Maine, far enough from Jack's home to make him out of reach if he's on the story, but close enough for him to keep racing over there as tragedies multiply. Meanwhile, Roxanne's former client, mom of a child who's died in foster care --- in a home that Roxane provided -- is clearly "off her meds" and setting records in stalking and threatening. And even the "good guys" out in Sanctuary and looking pretty strange by now.
"Jack," Tory said. "Somebody is threatening your property, even our family. What do you do?"Jack will have to use all his skills, investigative, writing, and parental, to keep his family safe this time, and to get the massive story that will provide the paycheck his family needs.
"Call the police?" I said.
"Sure, but what if the police are a half-hour away? What if by the time you see the fire, it's been burning for at least that long? What if the person doing this has free run of the town because at three a.m., everyone is asleep?"
"I don't know," I said. "You tell me."
"In a situation like this you have to take back the night, Jack," Tory said.
Boyle proves once again that a really good mystery must be much more than an intricate and believable plot: It requires characters who speak to us, and echo our own loves and doubts. With Jack McMorrow and his extended family, Boyle has constructed a powerful frame of love and struggle where his storytelling consistently lays out the memorable, the involved, the must-read caring for people "like us" who rely on each other in tough and frightening situations. Jack and Roxanne -- and Sophie -- may not come through this one unscathed. But they will come through it with us, the readers, increasingly committed to their journey.