LA Larkin has moved away from her espionage thrillers recently to deliver a couple of page turning thrillers centred around imperilled but resilient women. In Widow’s Island, Larkin’s main character was a high flyer brought low by tragedy and a national and very public cyberbullying campaign. The Safe Place has a very different female protagonist in a similar situation but one that is more intimate and insidious. At the same time, Larkin explores the very real dangers of the growing threat of mega forest fires seen in both the US and Australia in recent years.
Eagle Falls is a small American town on the edge of a lake and bordering on a National Park. When the book opens there is a mega fire burning in the park, close enough to see and smell but with the direction of the winds no threat to the township. That threat, though, and the constant pall of smoke hangs over all of the action in this book. Jessie lives outside of town in a small cabin, hiding from the populace. Jessie had been in a relationship with popular and charismatic Marcus, the town fire chief, but after accusing him of domestic violence (resulting in a broken arm) and not being believed by either the Sherriff or the town at large she has become a pariah. Two suspicious house fires lead police to believe that there may be a serial arsonist at work in the area. Jessie’s coincidental appearance at the second fire, together with her outsider status puts her in the frame and for Sherriff Cuffy that is good enough. Due to the abuse she suffered, Jessie finds it hard to trust anyone. But she forms a tentative relationship with Ruth, wife of a local and former FBI agent, who’s family have just moved back into town after living in Seattle for many years. Despite her non-active status, Ruth becomes invested in Jessie’s plight and starts to investigate.
Larkin has the pressure on Jessie from almost the first page and it does not let up. Each decision Jessie makes is a good one from her damaged perspective but often just makes her look more suspicious. And as the pressure mounts on Jessie, the threat to the town increases until all of the danger comes to a head in a frenetic, revelatory and explosive action set piece. The wildfire and its growing threat are brought to visceral life, reflecting no doubt Larkin’s experience of the 2019/20 Australian East coast bushfires.
Much as she did in Widow’s Island, Larkin has done her research on both forest fires and serial arsonists. There is a little piece of exposition about arsonists, but it is delivered organically and serves readers as a guide to considering the many suspects that Larkin throws their way. That said, Larkin plays fair even while dropping plenty of red herrings along the way, so some keen eyed readers may pick the solution early, but this makes the revelations more believable when they come. And Larkin manages to tie this plot line in well with her other concerns which are around domestic violence, gaslighting of abused women and control and it gives her the ability to deliver a couple of satisfying final twists.
There is plenty going on here, including an additional subplot involving mortgage fraud, but Larkin manages to tie all of these and other subplots together, having those secrets layer on each other to drive the actions of a range of characters. All up, The Safe Place shows Larkin growing in her ability to deliver thought provoking but page turning thrillers.