The Fire Baby

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Fire Baby is the second installment in Jim Kelly's grim, well-written series featuring former London journalist Philip Dryden. A tragic hero, Dryden was introduced—along with his wife Laura, already in her four-year coma—in Kelly's debut novel The Water Clock (2003).

The Fire Baby opens with a flashback to 1976, as a United States Air Force plane crashes into the Beck family farm in the English countryside. The only survivors are teenaged Maggie Beck and an American infant, a soldier's child she pulls from the wreckage after finding her own newborn baby dead in the farm's burned-out kitchen.

In a second prologue set twenty-seven years later, a man lies handcuffed inside a pillbox—a World War II-era concrete shelter—dying of thirst as an unknown jailer daily refills a glass of water placed just out of his reach.

Meanwhile, Maggie Beck lies dying in a hospital room she shares with Philip Dryden's wife. Suffering from “locked in syndrome,” Laura Dryden communicates disjointedly by selecting alphabet letters from a computer screen, only rarely spelling out full words. With Laura as a silent witness, Maggie struggles to tape-record a final statement for her missing daughter Estelle.

Both as a journalist and old friend of Maggie Beck, Philip Dryden is faced with several mysteries, and new questions arise as old secrets are revealed. He works with local police and military officials to find Estelle and an American pilot with whom she is traveling, and simultaneously pursues two stories for his weekly paper: one about illegal aliens smuggled into Cambridgeshire under life-threatening conditions, and another about a man who disappeared after learning his daughter unwittingly posed for pornographic photos.

Kelly's complex plot holds together; the novel features psychologically intense relationships among characters, flashes of ironic humor and, finally, an underlying sense of hope in the face of tragedy.