“Bonfire” (Crown Archetype), by Krysten Ritter
As an actress, Krysten Ritter has been building a solid career playing characters on the edge — the doomed Jane in “Breaking Bad,” the lead in “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” and especially her role in “Jessica Jones” and the same role in “The Defenders.”
As an author, Ritter brings that same unconventional, edgy approach to her engrossing suspense novel, “Bonfire.” Deliciously moody with a noirish undertone, “Bonfire” ignites a first-rate mystery resplendent with shadowy scenery, a tight plot and a lead character that is both fragile and strong. One could easily see Ritter playing the part of her heroine, Chicago lawyer Abby Williams, whose return to Barrens, Indiana, brings back the bad memories and fears she had growing up there.
Abby left Barrens a decade ago, right after high school graduation. Since then, her only contact with the town has been her sporadic calls to her abusive, reclusive father. As a teen, Abby was the target of a mean-girls clique that constantly and, at times, sadistically, bullied her. The group included her once close friend, the popular Kaycee Mitchell, who disappeared during their senior year, shortly after the teens in the clique came down with a mysterious illness. Later, the girls said they lied about being sick.
Abby has returned as part of a legal team investigating a civil lawsuit against Optimal Plastics, the megacorporation that has pumped millions into Barrens, bringing the town back from near extinction — and owning a few politicians along the way. Barrens is a company town, and, despite the sprucing up, it retains a gloominess because Optimal’s chemicals also may have polluted the reservoir, ruined crops and caused illnesses and birth defects.
Ritter expertly ramps up the suspense as Abby is pulled into a vortex of old acquaintances and the intersection of past and present. Kaycee’s vanishing still haunts the town, a local myth that has her living a good life, refusing to ever return to Barrens. The women who bullied Abby when they were teens treat the past as a joke, pulling her into their circle, yet also keeping her at a distance. Abby is once again attracted to her high school crush — who also was Kaycee’s boyfriend — and who now works for Optimal.
The melding of corporate corruption and the personal pollution that Abby endures elevates “Bonfire,” which blazes uncompromising storytelling and a believable, and shocking, finale.
The exciting “Bonfire” shows that not only can you go home again, sometimes you must — to escape it and reconcile the past.