Flatlands Noir: Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

This week’s announcement that Netflix cancelled Marvel’s Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter was bitter news for many loyal fans. But I’m certain we’ll see Ritter in other projects. That is, if she has the time for acting. I mean, it’s not enough to be a successful model turned actor turned cult icon? She has to be a writer too? (And clearly a damn good one.)

Krysten Ritter’s 2017 debut novel Bonfire was an impressive debut, and like many reviewers said, I ‘burned’ through it. Sorry, but that’s not an exaggeration. I really couldn’t put it down.

I’m going to label Bonfire ‘flatlands noir’ — not set among cornfields, pastures or picturesque farm houses, but the small town Midwest, multiple states filled with unknown burgs that have been bypassed by the interstates and left largely jobless when their local lifeblood factories shuttered in the early 2000’s. They’re too far from the city to be a suburb or even ‘exurban’, devolving into a bleak world of main streets lined with empty storefronts, Walmarts and Dollar Stores lurking on the outskirts of town where lonely two lane highways might seem like routes to something better, but only vanish into empty horizons. Author Ritter’s bio tells us she grew up on a farm before being discovered in a shopping mall and packed off to New York to start a successful modeling career. I sense that she adhered to that time-honored writer’s advice to ‘write what you know’ with her debut novel. The book feels authentic throughout with the author offering what may well be firsthand experience of small town life. Krysten Ritter’s Barrens, Indiana setting felt as real to me as countless off-the-highway towns that are sprinkled across the maps of Illinois, Wisconsin or Ohio and that I’ve driven through on business or en route to getaways and vacations.

Krysten Ritter

Flatlands Noir? Well, suffice to say that bad things can happen anywhere, and you don’t need to be in the dark back alleys of New York or the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles to find trouble. Trouble will find you. Even in Barrens, Indiana, which is where Bonfire’s heroine, Abby Williams, finds herself. But Abby’s no stranger to aptly named Barrens. It’s where she grew up, or more correctly, where she fled from, to a new life as an environmental attorney in Chicago, complete with a hipsterville office and a sleek apartment where she can indulge in an array of meaningless one night stands. Investigating an industrial pollution class action suit involving one-industry Barrens’ leading employer, Abby’s met with suspicion by some, hostility by others, and even old friends are hiding secrets about scandals from Abby’s youth. Ritter deftly interweaves multiple story threads dealing with Abby’s strained relationship with her father, dangerous corporate intrigue, a years-old tragedy and even murder. You can enjoy Ritter’s Bonfire as a conventional page-turning mystery or as a harsh look at contemporary small town USA. Either way, I suspect that, like me, you’ll be eager to see another book from Krysten Ritter, and I’m betting she has another in her. Watching the way she took seemingly unrelated plot lines and deftly wove them all together as the novel plowed through to its climax was truly impressive.

Acting? Hell, table that for a bit and get to work on another novel, Krysten, if you’re not already.

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