Book Review: The Burn by Kathleen Kent
By John ValeriFebruary 18, 2020
In the second Detective Betty mystery, Kathleen Kent’s protagonist Det. Betty Rhyzyk goes rogue, leading her into the dark underworld of the Dallas drug cartel.
Dallas native Kathleen Kent began her career in publishing by writing bestselling, award-winning historical novels—The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts. She made her crime fiction debut with The Dime (2017), based on a short story published in the Dallas Noir anthology; that title—currently under development for TV—earned an Edgar Award nomination and was named One of the Best Books of the Year by the Dallas Observer and BookRiot. In February Kent and her protagonist, Detective Betty Rhyzyk, return with The Burn.
As the story opens, narcotics Detective Rhyzyk (“Det. Betty”)—a tattooed redhead with a notoriously fiery personality—returns to the Dallas PD after narrowly escaping captivity at the hands of a doomsday cult known as The Family. The emotional and physical scars of that ordeal remain, however, and she is further frustrated when her supervisor puts her on desk duty pending clearance from a therapist to return to the street beat. Relegated to the status of bystander, she is compelled to go rogue when a string of assassinations begins taking out the division’s confidential informants—and a witness report indicates that the killer may be a cop.
Forced to keep things on the down-low, Det. Betty is in a precarious situation, with few people to trust or turn to—and this is made worse by the suspicion that her partner and quasi brother, Seth, is keeping secrets of his own. Then, there’s the fact that she’s caught the attention of a notorious cartel criminal known as El Cuchillo (The Knife). And the knowledge that Evangeline Roy, leader of The Family, is still out there, waiting to exact her revenge. The resulting downward spiral—which includes heavy drinking, isolation, and other reckless behavior—also threatens the tenuous truce she’s forged with her empathic-if-exasperated wife, Jackie. Consequently, there’s far more at stake than her professional livelihood.
The narrative is told through Det. Betty’s eyes, which allows Kent to contrast her protagonist’s outer brashness with an inner vulnerability that renders the character deeply flawed yet inherently relatable. Further, an opening flashback scene coupled with occasional ruminations over past events—including the circumstances that resulted in her brother’s suicide—provides essential backstory that illuminates her mentality and motivations. The author also captures the complex nuances of fraternal (and familial) cop relationships, which are tested as her unofficial inquiry reaches a combustible conclusion. Other standout elements include an atmospheric sense of place (Dallas, like Kent’s characters, is at times both magnetic and repellent) and a memorable cast of supporting players.
The Burn is a stellar offering from an author whose talents transcend genre. Kathleen Kent has written a scorcher of a story; the bleak realities of the drug epidemic, and its insidious reach, provide a solemn and suspenseful underpinning but are offset by moments of levity to lighten the tone. As thought-provoking as it is thrilling, this one deserves a place at, or near, the top of your TBR pile(s). Detective Betty Rhyzyk is hot stuff—but the risk of exposure is worth the reward of her company, fierce and frenetic as it may be.