Timothy Jay Smith’s Fire on the Island vouches to be ‘A Romantic Thriller’ on the cover- and the pages inside it deliver this promise and then some more. It is the author’s fourth book, and his experience is immediately obvious in the gripping way that the point of view of the narrative changes with the change in scene.
It begins with the mysterious Nick coming to Vourvoulos, the titular island, and Smith wastes no time in immersing the reader in the universe of the book. Immediately, we are introduced to the uniquely Greek characteristics of the island, as well as the fires that threaten to destroy it. Interestingly, the readers are introduced to the mishappenings when half the fires have already taken place, which creates an interesting ‘whodunnit’ situation as almost all characters in the story have fire related incidents in their past. It is almost like Smith presents you with a puzzle and tempts you to solve it before you reach the answer.
And it is an interesting one, involving not only a possibly local arsonist but also Syrian refugees, local small business owners, a church in need of a renovation, and a gay FBI agent who lands in the middle of the action in the first chapter itself. The theme of appearance versus reality is rich not only in the apparent mystery, but in the lives of the characters themselves. Father Alexis, the priest of the local church is anything but the epitome of grace. The Mayor of the town, similarly, is a great politician with his overt and covert feelings rarely being the same. Most notably, Nick’s undercover identity is nicknamed ‘Superman’ by the people of the island- an ironic twist considering that the original Superman created his alter ego to escape the very title. All of them are keeping secrets, and you desperately feel like knowing them. The female characters, however, leave you wanting more. They come across as one dimensional compared to their male counterparts, and any twists related to them are slightly more predictable.
The spirit of small towns is perfectly captured in the balance and negotiation of intimacy and secrecy between characters, and the racism against and politicization of immigrants is explored without the writing style getting too preachy. However, there are definitely moments that could have benefited from a less breezy approach- one of the central character’s racist behaviour isn’t dealt with directly enough, and topics like sexual assault, suicide, and the usage of homophobic slurs could have benefited from a more focused and clear approach. Since they become more parts of tangents and subplots, it can feel like only the surface is touched and substantiating them would’ve made the book feel more real.
On the romance front, the book unapologetically builds chemistry between multiple characters and does not leave you hanging. The simultaneous presence of heterosexual and LGBTQ+ longing and flirting makes it an exceptionally fun read, with the stress of the mystery being balanced out with the excitement of romance. Unlike traditional mysteries that separate the logical from the emotional and thus show their protagonists as being strict and cold-hearted detectives, Smith’s Nick actually indulges in romance with another man and proves that the two can exist together.
What the book does, most of all, is transport you to the island with a rich history not only tied to the geographic location and political struggles but the personal lives of the inhabitants. The narrative is as unpredictable as the scenic beauty of its location, as the characters benefit from the author making you invest in them. Most importantly, the central mystery actually has a rewarding resolution instead of being a lazy ‘gotcha!’ moment. There are humorous dialogues, crazy murder attempts, romantic highs and lows, and enough red herrings to throw you- and Nick- off the trail. ‘Fire on the Island’ by Timothy Jay Smith is therefore a breezy and engaging lockdown read, and will officially release on 7th July, 2020.