Campbell, Karen - 'After the Fire'
Jamie Worth is the Glasgow policeman in the triangle at the centre of THE TWILIGHT TIME, Karen Campbell's impressive, police-procedural first novel. In the second book in the series, AFTER THE FIRE, Jamie trains as a firearms officer and (this is not giving anything away) shoots and kills a girl as she is running from her tenement home, allegedly after erratically shooting a gun at innocent passers-by in the street below.
The novel explores in-depth the events leading up to the night of the shooting, Jamie's trial and his subsequent imprisonment. (Again, this is not giving anything away as these events are revealed at the start of the book, the first part of which is told in flashback.) We learn in minute detail about Jamie's experiences of being let down by the police force, the legal system and his presumed friends and colleagues; and experience his wife Cath's perspective as the mother of their two young children. At times, the first half of this book is slow, even tedious - partly for me because I found it difficult to identify or sympathise with Jamie or Cath. The author is also deliberately ambiguous about who is at "fault" - it is clear that Jamie has shot the girl, so the outcome of the court case is only one aspect of the story - his emotional and ethical responses are also central to the mix.
The author was herself a policewoman for many years, and this experience provides a framework that seems deeply authentic - not just in the scenes involving the criminal justice system, but in the descriptions of the media's behaviour and the poignant excerpts throughout the book that movingly describe the short, tragic life of the young victim. The author goes where few would wish to travel, in following Jamie right through his prison sentence and all the associated petty deprivations and cruel meanness. Society forgets about an individual after he or she has been convicted for a crime, but the author is on a crusade not only to show up the injustices and corruption inherent in the prison system, but also to demonstrate that far from providing a punishment followed by rehabilitation, it destroys those who are in it by breaking them mentally and/or physically.
Anna Cameron is an apparently successful, graduate-entrant policewoman whose career nearly came unstuck in THE TWILIGHT TIME. At the start of AFTER THE FIRE, she is attending a UN conference in New York, where she meets prosecutor David Millar; due to his keenness on her and his charming good nature, she forms an uneasy relationship with him. Anna returns to Scotland on discovering what has happened to Jamie, who is her former lover, convinced of his innocence and determined to prove it. Despite her offers of help being violently rejected by a jealous Cath, she is determined to vindicate Jamie.
Gradually, Cath and Jamie separately transcend their challenging situation: in his case, the violence and other abuses of prison, and in hers, of coping with young children, a mortgage, being broke and friendless. They both discover what is really important, and shrug off many of their earlier (frankly boring!) attitudes and values. But it seems a distant hope as to whether Anna can (or will go the full distance to) uncover any evidence to help Jamie, or even if so, can turn it to his advantage. Assuming you have already read THE TWILIGHT TIME, AFTER THE FIRE is a rewarding book. The author does not try to make her characters likeable or pander to the reader; she has a serious, campaigning point to make. This is a refreshing combination, and by the end, one feels that some of the characters have really been put through everything that modern life can throw at them, and have emerged the stronger for it. I'm very much looking forward to reading more by this talented, thoughtful author.
Read another review of AFTER THE FIRE.
Maxine Clarke, England