This is a complex psychological thriller, from the bestselling author of The Missing. Maeve Kerrigan is an ambitious young DC, determined to prove her competency in the misogynistic world of the Metropolitan CID. She and her colleagues are working on a horrifying serial murder case. Several young women have been beaten to death, their bodies taken to quiet corners of local parks and then set alight.
The novel begins dramatically with a drunken young teenager being given a lift by a mini-cab driver. He deviates from her normal route home and she becomes convinced that he is “The Burning Man” who is splashed all over the papers. She stabs him with a flick-knife and jumps out of the car. Maeve and her colleague Rob Langton are called out. They are excited at the prospect of The Burning Man being caught, but their hopes are dashed when they are called out to another young woman’s body which initially looks exactly like the other killings. The forensic examination proves that the unfortunate mini-cab driver couldn’t possibly be The Burning Man. It also reveals some slight but significant differences from the other killings.
The latest victim is Rebecca Haworth, an apparently successful PR executive. In the morning, on their own initiative, Maeve and Rob go round to Rebecca’s flat. They find that a young woman, Louise North, who claims to be Rebecca’s best friend, is engaged in a thorough spring-cleaning session. She tells them she has been worried about Rebecca lately, and as she has a key to the flat and was unable to contact Rebecca on the telephone, she went there, and there was no sign of Rebecca. As the flat was in such a mess she decided to clean it up, (thus destroying any forensic evidence there might be). Maeve and Rob break the news of Rebecca’s murder as gently as they can. When they report their findings to the Superintendent, they are both in hot water for acting independently, and Maeve is taken off the main investigation of the killings and told to concentrate on Rebecca’s life and associates.
Up to this point Maeve has been the main narrator, but the narration now switches between Maeve and Louise North. Louise is an up-and-coming solicitor in a prestigious practice. Her life appears to be completely taken up with her work. Rebecca was her only close friend, whom she met when they were both students at Oxford. Rebecca was always the popular, lively one, and Louise has been regarded as a rather mousey side-kick.
The story becomes increasingly complex as Maeve discovers that Rebecca was not all she appeared to be. She interviews her parents, other friends and former lovers, and finds that she had actually quit her job some time before her death. Then the Superintendent allows her to take part in a surveillance operation, when an undercover young woman PC walks unaccompanied through one of the parks late at night, acting as bait in the hope of flushing out The Burning Man.