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The Fire Baby by Jim Kelly
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Penguin Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780141026572
Date: Unlisted 2005

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In 1976, a transport plane from Mildenhall AFB crashes into Black Bank Farm, near Ely, Great Britain. All passengers were killed except for one, a baby, Lyndon Koslinski. He is rescued by Maggie Beck who also lost her family in the crash, including her own infant son, Matty. She heals, marries, and has a daughter, Estelle. In 2003, while lying in her death bed, Maggie confesses to what actually happened on the night of the plane crash. Her confession begins a deadly chain reaction that will imperil the lives of many people; one of them includes reporter Philip Dryden whose wife, Laura, shares the same hospital room as Maggie.

Also by Jim Kelly:
Philip Dryden:
* The Coldest Blood
* The Skeleton Man
* Nightrise
* The Funeral Owl
* The Water Clock
* The Fire Baby
Peter Shaw and George Valentine Series:
* Death Wore White
* Death Watch
* Death Toll
* Death's Door

Jim Kelly's The Fire Baby should be hailed as a masterpiece of modern mystery. I've read nearly all of his novels and The Fire Baby is probably the crowning achievement of his career. It has non-stop suspense, drama, and violence that will keep the reader totally engaged. The plot has a multitude of fires, beginning with the fiery plane crash and including fires started by lightning storms that ravage the Fens and fires started by arsonists. Corpses are incinerated beyond recognition. Also, the ground is burning up because of a drought that grips the land. Near Black Bank Farm, a man is dying of thirst; he is being held prisoner in a WWII pillbox that is dug beneath the earth and camouflaged. He is connected to the plane crash.

Also connected to the plane crash is the selling of pornographic photos depicting young girls. They've been drugged, kidnapped, and forced to have sex while being photographed. The same criminals involved in the pornography are also smuggling illegal immigrants into Great Britain to perform farm labor throughout the Fens. A group of illegal immigrants have been abandoned inside a hot, stifling storage container and are dying of dehydration and starvation. Philip Dryden, always looking for a good story for one of the newspapers for which he writes, is busy investigating the pornography, the people smugglers, and the disappearance of several locals. One of them is a young girl, Alice Sutton. She was featured in pornographic photos taken inside a pillbox of which there are many in the Fens.

Everything about The Fire Baby is unique. All of the Philip Dryden novels are set in the Fens. The Fens is a large area of flatland used primarily for agricultural purposes. It was created by the damming of lakes, resulting in the flooding of entire villages. The Fens has marshes and innumerable ditches called drains. The land is frequently ravaged by unpredictable dust storms that can be quite devastating with their high winds and lightning strikes. The Fens plays a significant role in the story's plot. One might say that it is a bad character that impedes Dryden's investigations.

Most unique is the main character, Philip Dryden. He leads a strange life. He lives on a small, ancient boat--a steel-built inshore naval patrol boat--that is easily accessible by strangers; criminals are always getting angry at Dryden and damaging his poor boat, PK 129. Dryden and his wife, Laura, were in a car accident. Someone ran them into a flooded ditch, Harrimere Drain. He escaped unharmed but she remains in a coma, suffering from Locked In Syndrome (LIS). She can hear those around her but can't respond to them. Dryden visits her very often at a plush hospital known as Tower Hospital.

Dryden never drives. A cabbie named Humphrey H. Holt, a.k.a. Humph, drives him everywhere in his beloved old Capri. Humph is another tortured soul. Bitterly divorced, he spends most of his time in his cab listening to educational foreign language tapes so that he can always spend his next Christmas in a foreign country. Furthermore, Humph seldom bathes. Imagine riding around with him during a drought. Humph also likes to drink a lot of alcohol from miniature bottles dispensed on airplanes.

All of the novel's loose threads are neatly tied together at the end. This mystery has many suspects and several killers, but the identity of the main one--the one responsible for the corpse found chained inside the pillbox--isn't revealed until nearly the last page. In the meantime, readers should be prepared to receive one shock after another as the body count rises. Indeed, mystery fans and mystery writers should do themselves a favor and read Jim Kelly’s classic novel, The Fire Baby. In fact, the entire Philip Dryden series, as well as his Shaw and Valentine series, is excellent.

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