The Blaze

  • By Chad Dundas
  • G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • 384 pp.

An Iraq War veteran returns home and struggles to regain his memory amid strange happenings.

The Blaze

When a new novel from a nearly new author has yet to be categorized, we can only learn what kind of book it is by reading it. With this in mind, I delved into Chad Dundas’ The Blaze and found it easy going. I was not certain of its category, however, until nearly halfway through. It turns out to be an action/mystery tale.

The story begins with protagonist Matthew Rose suffering grievous injuries from a powerful IED explosion in Iraq, including a concussion that causes him to lose most of his memory. He returns to his hometown of Missoula, Montana, where his former girlfriend lives, and to the buildings and streets that he hopes will trigger memories of his youth.

Novels of literary suspense like this one share certain characteristics, including action sequences, conflict, unanswered questions, an unidentified killer, and, usually, the police. All are present here, and the denouement to this tale is satisfying on all counts. Along the way, however, Dundas occasionally lets us down.

First, there is little urgency to Matthew’s search for his lost memory. He seems merely curious, for example, about an empty lot that reminds him of, well, something. Major events occur. A fire he’s told was deliberately set kills a local college student.

Then Matthew finds a clipping that reminds him of a similar fire 15 years earlier. Could there be a connection? He sees a figure with long hair in a trench coat — the arsonist, perhaps — running from the fatal blaze. He briefly trails the man.

Yet none of this prompts him to consider canceling a flight to his mother’s home the following day. He is interested in the happenings, but not drawn in by them. We wonder what it’s going to take to get Matthew — and us — committed to finding the killer.

He seems equally casual about reestablishing a relationship with his former girlfriend, Georgie, a crack reporter for the local paper, a sympathetic and attractive character. Matthew ponders, unhurriedly, that it is hard to reestablish a relationship with Georgie because, with his memory gone, it’s really a new one.

He makes little effort to break through this dilemma, and while the pair gets along just fine, there’s no attraction, no urgency, no hint of sex; their relationship seems bland, and their desire to change it, laconic.

Still, there are many fine moments. While the story moves at a leisurely pace from scene to scene, often with little action or conflict, an event will trigger Matthew’s memory, and bang! We’re off and running, at least for a while.

Dundas describes places — woods, freight yards, people’s homes —thoroughly, and he wants you to know what his characters look like. When a good setting combines with the story’s momentum, we get some fine writing, as when Matthew and his childhood friend enter a dangerous train tunnel:

“A little at a time, the darkness retreated. Soon he could make out the arch of the tunnel walls overhead. He looked down and saw his boots slogging through chunky black mud just as the mouth of the tunnel burst open onto the backside of an old dam. He and Scottie staggered into the moonlight, blinking...The air here was crisp and weightless...He set his bag down and followed the bend of the tracks with his eyes, seeing the way they skirted along a stagnant reservoir before disappearing into the saddle of the mountain.”

I was mildly distracted by point-of-view shifts. The author tends to bring in his omniscient voice when a character, describing an event, cannot do so in sufficient detail. Happily, this doesn’t happen often.

A word of praise for Dundas’ ability to avoid some of the dreadful excesses common in mystery novels. There is no tough guy coolly breaking people’s arms, or finding corruption, violence, and twisted psyches in every corner. The characters are believable, they talk like real people, and most of them are sympathetic and interesting. That’s no mean feat.

Despite the casual pace of the early scenes, The Blaze is easy reading and, when things pick up at the end, with just a little suspension of disbelief, it delivers the goods.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines. His most recent novel is Show Time.

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