Television tie-in novels must walk a fine line, showcasing characters that are successful in another medium without changing them, since that's the prerogative of the television series itself. This can make CSI novels rather difficult to execute sometimes, or at least difficult to make interesting. Jeff Mariotte does a pretty good job of this in his latest CSI effort, The Burning Season. Unfortunately, other missteps mar what would otherwise be a fairly enjoyable entry in the series.
Three separate crimes need to be solved by the intrepid Las Vegas nightshift CSIs. A fire in a small resort town of Mount Charleston, near Las Vegas, results in almost the entire subdivision being burned to the ground, as well as the deaths of six firefighters. There is the attempted roadside bombing of the head of a major cable news network, a network beset by large protests outside of the building and numerous death threats against the owner. Finally, a dog has taken a severed hand underneath the front porch of a suburban home. Retrieving the hand will lead Ray Langston into the dark underbelly of the illegal immigrant community.
Mariotte does a good job with the characterization of the various CSIs, making them interesting despite the fact that he can't unveil any major revelations about them. Instead, he explores some of the nuances where the show doesn't always tread, or little areas that work best in print. Sara Sidle, Gil Grissom's wife who returns to Vegas while Grissom is teaching in Paris, finds herself wondering whether it's time to move back away from civilization and the horrors that humans can inflict on each other. Mariotte also
highlights the easy friendship that she and Nick Stokes share as they investigate the fire.
The other characters in the book are interesting, too, and fairly three-dimensional. Some come close to being clichéd stereotypes, such as the gun nut who lives in Mount Charleston and whose first thought is defending his home with a shotgun, along with going after the two hippies who he's sure started the fire. Mostly, characterization is not a problem in The Burning Season.
The problem basically lies in the politics in the novel. It's not that I agree or disagree with the politics presented; it's that Mariotte bends over so far backwards to avoid offending anybody that the novel loses focus. Dennis Daniels, the head of the news network and subject of the attempted assassination, is supposedly an "independent," which apparently means that he'll anger both sides of the political spectrum. It’s hard to buy that somebody with such "middle of the road" policies would actually be generating the kinds of protests that Daniels experiences in the book, even if he does use his network to put forth his political views.
It doesn't help that the two groups primarily suspected of the bombing are a right-wing group and an extreme right-wing group. Still, Mariotte does treat the "regular" right-wing group pretty fairly, which is a plus. It's also quite affecting when we learn what's really behind the extremist group, too. That, too, is a refreshing change from the way these groups are typically portrayed.
The other political minefield that Mariotte enters is that of illegal immigration, which works a lot better in The Burning Season. Mariotte still tries to avoid offending anybody, by portraying the people themselves sympathetically even as he has Ray give lip service to the fact that enforcing the law is important. Mariotte does move beyond all that to show the true horrors that these people sometimes go through at the hands of predators who take advantage of their vulnerability.
Even the fire storyline features a few political statements and stereotypes, but overall the results are effective and affecting.
Overall, Mariotte's prose is fine, but the sections where he has to explain CSI technicalities and why their job is so tough feel awkward and uneven, dragging the story to a complete stop. Sometimes it actually stalls on for a full page or two. In chapter three, Sara and Greg Sanders exchange dialogue explaining why they can now use digital photography for crime scenes before actually getting onto the meat of the story. Most other times the narration explains things. These expository sections grow tiresome after a while.
The Burning Season is a fine CSI novel, as long as you can look past those issues. Some aspects may not bother every reader, depending on your political stance or your tolerance for authors trying to have it both ways. It's good to see our beloved CSI characters in print form again. While this may not be the best CSI book out there, it will do in a pinch.