City On Fire

Written by Graham Bartlett

Review written by P. D. Viner

P.D. Viner is a crime writer and film maker. Baker and coffee fiend. Course director of the Goldsboro Writing Academy.

City On Fire
Alison and Busby
RRP: £19.99
Released: March 21 2024

I read recently that Graham Bartlett was the crime writer’s crime writer, and I think that’s about right (and it’s meant as a real compliment). As an ex-Chief Superintendent of Police for Brighton and Hove, Bartlett has been the go-to guy for advice and fact checking for books and TV crime fiction for several years [and full disclosure, he has provided technical support for my own work].

That’s why his Jo Howe series (which reaches its third instalment with City on Fire,) is so realistic and grounded in believable characters. He knows the city he writes about, and the characters he’s created are moulded out of imagination, experience, love and respect for the men (and especially women) who put themselves on the line every day. 

The strength of Bartlett, and I think what makes him stand above other ex-coppers who have turned to writing, is that there is a deep dissatisfaction in his outlook, not with the officers themselves, but with the political realities of policing and the social breakdown of trust between us and them, in the twenty-first century. These books — from the first, Good For Bad, through Force of Hate and onto City on Fire — are gritty, urban, thrilling, and highly enjoyable — but there is a dystopian feel to his world. Not in a 1984 police-state way, but more like Lord of the Flies where Brighton is the island that is descending into chaos. Bartlett knows that this is not the way the world is meant to be, and that the police can only do so much to keep the situation stable. Jo Howe is understaffed, underappreciated, and over-worked. She has to toil at keeping her marriage alive, her family relationships strong and her city safe. It isn’t just criminals that threaten the already damaged society – it’s the cuts, the politics, and the loss of faith in policing that are as big a threat.

In City on Fire Jo Howe is undermined by press attacks, and her own journalist husband is dragged in to destabilise her by his newspaper and their shady proprietors. Charities that should be protecting vulnerable people, prove to be far from charitable in many ways, and more of a liability to those they seek to help. In Bartlett’s scary Brighton drugs aren’t bad, they aren’t good — but they are incredibly profitable, and it isn’t scuzzy hoodie-wearing low-lives that are reaping these enormous dividends. The real criminals wear suits, attend black-tie dinners and rub shoulders with the great and the good.  After a few hours in Bartlett’s engrossing world you might worry for our society’s protectors, and feel fearful of everything collapsing, like a house of cards.

Bartlett’s plotting is taut drawing you into the narrative. He crafts a series of believable and identifiable villains with a deft touch mixing medical trials and big pharma shenanigans in a scarily prescient tale. What could have been far-fetched, if written by a writer less grounded in police-work, fizzes with tension and grim realism. City on Fire sizzles, but never crashes and burns. One not to miss.

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