****The Long Fire

fire, night

(photo: Montecruz foto, creative commons license)

By Meghan Tifft – This sparkling debut mystery is narrated by the book’s protagonist, Natalie Krupin, a 27-year-old woman adrift in a hazy, smoke-obscured world. Her mysteries revolve around her gypsy mother, dead in a fire that destroyed her parents’ home, her unkempt father, one cheap apartment away from homelessness, and her older brother, a social outcast among his peers, a drug addict and runaway, lost and presumed dead. To a person, members of this family do not live by the ordinary conventions, and, over the generations, suspicious fires have stalked them (“wherever gypsies go, fire follows,” Natalie’s mother says). They pursue Natalie throughout.

Natalie herself is aggressively unconventional. She wears thrift-shop clothing assembled into bizarre costumes; she has furnished her apartment with child-sized furniture. Most unusually, she suffers from pica, though “suffer” is not an accurate verb, since she often revels in it, literally devouring her world. She’s as likely to eat a book as to read it. This odd character plunges into the deep family mystery when her father receives a phone message from someone whose voice sounds like her dead mother’s rasp, followed by the discovery of cryptic notes hidden in a flame-scarred cigarette case and written on the paper of a hand-rolled cigarette. Propelled by the phone message, Natalie resolves to unravel her family’s past.

This set-up for the plot cannot capture the terrific voice Tifft has created for Natalie—quirky, funny, observant, and understandably confused. For example, I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Natalie interprets her life through the koan-like platitudes found in a bag of fortune cookies: “The truth hides in small places. You must search to find it.” Truly.

Tifft never fails to surprise as Natalie sets out to discover what really happened to her mother, and whether she can find the answers in the closed-mouthed gypsy community. The more she investigates, the more secrets she encounters, involving not just her mother, but her missing brother too. Their present absences have roots in the past, and the narrative delves into the childhood of the siblings, as idiosyncratic and fraught as you’d expect, given the adult products. They were both, as Natalie says about her brother “fashioned too near the fire.”

Readers will find Natalie an engaging, unforgettable character, courageous in confronting the uncertainties of her life, wry and compassionate. Like so many novels in which characters embark on a quest, they are really searching for and most likely to find themselves. This is a literary mystery, not bound by the typical mystery/thriller conventions and, paradoxically, therefore, more revealing.

Read my interview with author Meghan Tifft for Crime Fiction Lover. A somewhat longer version of this review is on that website.