Brack Pelton—widower, Afghanistan War veteran, bar owner, part-time vigilante, and hero of David Burnsworth’s second action thriller, Burning Heat—is leaving his buddy Mutt’s bar after a night of the blues. The “ramshackle watering-hole” is in a rough part of Charleston: “I’d been on this street enough times to know not to stop—for anything,” Brack remembers. “So I didn’t—for two blocks. Even in the bad part of town, it could be hard to find convenient parking.” Before he can climb into his Ram pickup, he spies what looks to be a domestic dispute. When the man starts to get violent—and a little girl suddenly appears on the scene—Brack intervenes.
After tussling with the man and knocking him unconscious against the roof of a parked car, Brack realizes that the woman is gorgeous—and that he has met her before. But before they can reminisce about the connection, the woman’s abuser comes to and guns her down. Brack is left with a crime scene, a lot of questions, and a six-year-old girl. “The shooter, whoever he was, ought to be thankful I didn’t still have the M4 rifle and night-vision glasses the Marines had taught me to use,” he thinks. “He deserved a Bin Laden special—two shots and a splash.”
Brack, an on-the-wagon renegade type, lives alone with his mixed-breed dog in an inherited shack on Isle of Palms, one of Charleston’s barrier islands. He’s unlucky in love (though not for any shortage of appealing women) but gets by with the help of an awful lot of friends—old and young, male and female, black and white. He’s part Patrick Kenzie, part Jimmy Buffet, and part Rambo.
The murder victim’s name is Willa Mae, and her pastor, Brother Thomas, asks Brack to look into her murder. It turns out to be a good thing that he’s there to snoop: the police don’t seem particularly eager to publicize the shooting or to solve the case. Whether their reluctance stems from racism or sexism or classism (the victim is an African-American woman with a sketchy past who lives on the wrong side of the tracks), or a conspiracy of some sort, isn’t clear to Brack. Aided by a host of well-connected friends in places high and low, his own investigation quickly turns up some very juicy, and potentially damning, connections in this tight-knit Lowcountry community.
Brack’s having trouble at his day job, too. Somebody seems to have it out for his ocean-side tiki bar, the Pirate’s Cove (“an elevated structure…covered with green planks, the whole thing in the shape of an old Spanish frigate” that “flew her flags proudly in defiance to the high-end hotels and beach shops surrounding her”), and his preoccupation with finding Willa Mae’s killer is causing tension among his anxious bar staff.
The investigation brings the short-fused Brack into contact with some true scum-of-the-earth types, and the closer he gets to uncovering the truth, the harder it gets to remain mindful of Brother Thomas’s wise words: “Man can’t afford to lose his own soul while he trying to do right.” Can he bring Willa Mae’s killer to justice before the collateral damage includes his conscience?
David Burnsworth is a graduate of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Burning Heat is his second Brack Pelton thriller, a sequel to Southern Heat.
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.