Welsh, Louise - 'A Lovely Way to Burn'
Stevie Flint is stood up by a man in a bar called Simon Sharkey, a doctor and a surgeon who works with sick children. When he unexpectedly doesn't phone her to apologise, and fails to respond to her voice messages, she decides to go to his flat, let herself in with the keys he's given her, and pick up her things, while he is presumably out at work. To her horror, she discovers him dead in his bed, apparently from natural causes. After dealing with the police, she returns home and immediately starts to feel very ill. A result, she thinks, of the stress and shock of finding Simon dead. A few days later, after fevers, vomiting and diarrhoea, nightmares and a rash, she awakens feeling slightly better to find multiple messages on her phone. Then Simon's cousin arrives at the door to deliver a letter she'd found in the tea caddy in Simon's flat, addressed to Stevie. In the letter, he tells her he's left a package, containing his laptop, in the loft space of her apartment and that if something happens to him, she should find it and take it to Dr Malcolm Reah at St Thomas's hospital, where Simon himself was also working.
Meanwhile, while Stevie has been sick, it seems that much of London is also catching the same disease, but most people are becoming so sick that they are dying. This includes Joannie, Stevie's colleague and co-presenter on the TV home-selling channel that they both work on. And, unfortunately, when Stevie arrives at St Thomas's, she finds that Dr Reah has also fallen sick and has died. Dr Buchanan, the chemist in the team of researchers that Simon had been working in says he will take responsibility for the laptop, but Stevie resists. Somehow she has a feeling that whatever is on the laptop may give a clue as to why Simon died, and she finds herself wanting to find out more by herself. Instinctively, she doesn't quite trust Dr Buchanan and his team. Although apparently his team are top researchers and they had made some recent important breakthroughs in treating cerebral palsy.
And, so the scene is set for Stevie to pursue her search to try to find out what happened to Simon against the backdrop of the epidemic of the 'sweats', the virulent disease that Stevie seems to have suffered from and survived, while almost everyone else is dying. Think 28 Days Later with a single woman trying to solve a mystery in the foreground. Is there somehow some sort of link between the dodgy research doctors and the development of the illness? Or is this completely unrelated? What does Dr Buchanan have to hide? Is it something to do with their novel treatment for cerebral palsy?
Strangely, Stevie's pursuit for the truth would have worked well as a story without the apocalyptic background. While the danger as society starts to collapse due to the effects of the sickness sweeping London (and elsewhere) does have some impact, mostly Stevie is free to set about her investigation unhindered, as of course she has already had the disease, has recovered, and is now immune. It wasn't really clear to me why the sickness element of the story was needed, and its portrayal was not particularly novel. I found the storyline of greedy research physicians slightly unsettling and slightly unbelievable. Other elements of the story work well, in that Stevie is a strong determined character able to follow her nose and find out what really did happen to Simon. So, all in all, I had a rather mixed response to this latest outing from Louise Welsh.
A LOVELY WAY TO BURN is the first part in the 'Plague Times Trilogy'.
Michelle Peckham, England