Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on After the Fire.
Dark secrets lurk in the Maudling Estate, an uncompromising concrete slab of social housing in North London, where the November days are cold and bleak and families live on the edge of poverty. On the tenth floor of Murchison House, three girls--possibly sex workers--are locked in. Next door, retiree Mary Hearn notices the daily comings and goings of the Bellew family: Carl Bellew; his mother, Nina; and Carl’s young wife, Debbie, who as the story begins is going out to the shops. Before Debbie leaves the building, a fire breaks out, completely gutting the top two floors. There are three fatalities. One of them is Geoff Armstrong, a current Member of Parliament, well-known for his far-right platform of immigrant hating and welfare criticism.
Returning to the Maudling Estate after the events in The Kill, DI Maeve Kerrigan senses a sensitive and complex investigation, one likely to be hampered by DI Josh Derwent’s volcanic tendencies, a disposition that refuses to be tempered even by acting Crime Squad leader Una Burt, who has warned Josh about his aggressive nature. A subliminal rage still burns within Josh, yet in spite of his petulance and sulking, Maeve acknowledges there’s something bracing about working with him. Josh is determined to look out for seasoned detective Maeve; Creepy Chris Swain has been obsessively hunting Maeve for years and won’t give up until she gives in to him.
The team are hopeful that an onsite examination of the crime scene will provide answers. At the Maudlin Estate, pathologists, forensics specialists, and the news media scurry around. The team gets an anonymous tip that Armstrong was on the tenth floor just before the fire broke out. It looks as though Armstrong jumped or was pushed from the window, the state of his body adding further unease after the investigation finds two girls horribly incinerated inside their flat.
With certain details flickering just out of reach, Maeve and Josh talk to the survivors: abused wife Melissa Pell, who was hiding from her violent ex-husband Mark at the Estate; the Bellews, particularly Debbie Bellew, who remembers hurrying past a man on the stairwell with his head bent and a cap pulled down low over his eyebrows; frail Mrs. Hearn, whose impression of the Bellews strongly suggests that Carl wasn’t a “simple handyman” but was “up to no good;” and Geoff Armstrong’s wife, Cressida. Loaded up on pills and booze, Cressida remains adamant that she had a strong marriage and that her husband was devoted to his work.
Casey cleverly builds her suspense, alternating her first-person narrative with Maeve’s interior life. The survivors in this complicated investigation offer few if any leads to the nightmare of Chris Swain, and Maeve difficult relationship with Josh is fraught with challenges: “No one made me question myself like he did.” Maeve wants Josh’s approval despite telling herself that his opinion is worthless. He comes to stay with Maeve at her flat, offering her a special gift that trembles around the opaque nature of sexual attraction. Josh decides to track the festering evil of Chris Swain through the secret side of the Internet, a place where a stalker can hack and hide himself in the name of freedom.
With Josh constantly preoccupied over Swain’s whereabouts, Maeve leads the way, guiding the team into an investigation far more nightmarish and fraught with surprises than initially thought. Maeve also leads the team to learn more about the strange, mysterious woman who was presumably Geoff Armstrong’s girlfriend. In the end, all the sorrow and hidden hurt of Murchison House drifts away, “dissipating against the clear blue winter sky” with the secrets of the Bellews, Armstrong, and the two unknown women who died a hellish death in the fire.
From suicide and a brutal murder to the tempestuous ongoing relationship between Maeve and Josh, Ward unfurls all in a tense, exciting finale. Swain gets his comeuppance in a scenario that allows Maeve to breathe again and lets Josh to recognize his true calling as Maeve’s co-conspirator and savior.