Published by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road on September 4, 2012
Fires of London follows a classic thriller formula: a falsely accused man must avoid the police long enough to prove his own innocence. In addition to its plot, Fires of London shares other attributes of memorable thrillers: strong writing, solid characters, and a swift pace. Yet in its protagonist and milieu, Fires of London departs from the classic formula to achieve a result that is fresh and fascinating.
To support his painting and gambling, Francis Bacon works as a “gentleman’s companion.” His preference, however, is for “rough trade” -- clandestine meetings with strangers under circumstances that carry a hint of danger. One of the men he meets, a man he believes to be Chief Inspector John Mordren, roughs him up during their encounter in a park. Soon thereafter, a young man Bacon vaguely knows from gay bars is found beaten to death in Hyde Park. Bacon wonders whether Mordren might be responsible. After Bacon stumbles over the dead body of an RAF pilot while making his way down a dark street, Mordren recruits Bacon to assist him in finding the serial killer. Does Mordren really want Bacon’s help, or is Mordren setting up Bacon as the fall guy? When Bacon finds a third murder victim after a bombing raid, Mordren has reason to identify Bacon as a suspect in all three murders. Bacon, of course, must find the killer on his own while he tries to avoid arrest.
Francis Bacon is an unlikely thriller hero. That’s consistent with the convention of the “innocent man” formula -- the innocent man is usually an ordinary guy thrust into a sinister world, relying on wits rather than training to solve the mystery -- but Bacon is truly a unique thriller protagonist. Bacon describes himself as “a connoisseur of extremity, of excess emotion and extraordinary sensation,” for whom there exists only pain and pleasure. He likes to live on the edge -- both in his sex life and in his nighttime work as a warden, enforcing blackout regulations and helping Londoners find shelters -- but he balances a life that is “dark and full of violence” with the brightness of art and the joy of celebration.
Bacon’s personality is carefully developed, but even minor characters are made real and complex with a few well-chosen words. Wee Jimmy, for instance, is a criminal and thug, but he pitches in to help rescue crews clear rubble left by the Blitz, doing his part to help his countrymen in wartime. From Bacon’s resourceful (and thieving) grandmother to his hard-drinking companions, every character is full of vitality.
Janice Law based the fictional Francis Bacon on the British painter of the same name, who (according to Wikipedia) is “known for his bold, graphic and emotionally raw imagery.” The same adjectives could be used to describe Law’s prose. Law writes in a style that is both elegant and playfully lurid. She recreates the climate of a weary London as pub crawlers carry gas masks, blackouts lead to traffic accidents, and everyone waits for the first bombs to fall. Her description of the fiery aftermath of the air raids that finally come is just as vivid. You can smell the smoke, hear the dogs howling at death.
Fires of London is a quick but engrossing read. The plot is simple yet elegant, spiced with the addition of a tangentially related blackmail scheme, and leads to a satisfying (if slightly ambiguous) conclusion. While the novel works as a mystery/thriller (although the identity of the killer isn’t difficult to guess), it is even better as a character study, a portrait of an artist who is drawn to more than one kind of peril in the dark nights of wartime London.