“Burning Eden” by Sarah Bewley

Burning Eden (Level Best Books 2023), by Gainesville, Florida, first-time novelist and award-winning playwright Sarah Bewley, is a skillfully plotted, character-driven police procedural with a surprisingly tender heart given the rising death toll. The novel also has an evocative gloss of Southern Gothic about it, adding to its impact and richness. After all, the story takes place in Eden, a fictional county in north Florida. A rampant wildfire burns the nearby swamp. Smoke hangs over everything and everyone. A villain is kidnapping and killing while leaving cryptic notes behind with quotes from the Old Testament. The tender heart of the story lies with its principal protagonist, an empathic sheriff who only reluctantly entered law enforcement.

As the story opens, swamp land in Eden County is burning and other wildfires burn out of control over the state. This atmosphere sets the stage for the ensuing kidnappings and murders, casting the action in a kind of netherworld scenery. The author vividly describes the setting:

The fires drove the gators and the snakes out to look for water. The smoke from the burning peat kept the county under a grey haze, blocking the sun and filling everyone’s lungs. …[The smoke] hugged the ground and hung in the tree canopy like Spanish moss gone out of control.

As the fires burn, Sheriff Jim Sheppard’s morning breakfast with his teenage son is disrupted with a call from his office alerting him that a Pentecostal preacher has gone missing. And, according to the man’s wife, he was nude at the time he disappeared. As Jim leaves the house, he reflects at least he has a car to begin the search. His great-grandfather used a horse when he was sheriff. As the novel develops, readers come to understand why he is both a widower and a reluctant sheriff. When another character is asked to describe Jim, he offers the single word, “kind.”

Two other main characters, Dr. Ryan Edwards and Sgt. Dee Jackson, weave through the developing drama with intriguing consequence. Both contribute not only to the action, but to the vivid depiction of the community. Besides these three main characters, the story is rich with other personalities, including two dogs, countless deputies, a tart-tongued newspaper reporter nobody likes, and a photographer with a stash of potentially crime-solving photos.

Dr. Edwards was once a well-respected ER physician in a big city. After a life-changing criminal attack upon him and his wife, he is left brain-damaged with aphasia and widowed. His speech issues make his former fast-action, life-or-death medical practice impossible. Seeking a quieter professional practice and a place to rebuild his life, he moves to Eden County and joins the town’s well-respected doctor in a small town/rural clinic. He brings with him a dog, Bonehead, who is not enamored with either Dr.  Edwards or Eden County. His character arc is especially well done and rewarding to read.

The third main character is Sergeant Dee Jackson, a no-nonsense, ambitious Black female officer. The sheriff—and other deputies—respect her and even fear her a bit. With service in the military before landing back in civilian life in Florida, she steadfastly rejects the sheriff’s offer to promote her to captain as she has bigger plans for her professional career. Her role in the plot evolves naturally and the relationship between her and the sheriff is one of mutual respect. Dee’s physical and emotional strength become a saving grace as the plot intensifies.

The town at the heart of it all, Warren, has only five thousand citizens and is the largest in all of Eden County. In some ways, as in the best of Southern literature, the town and the surrounding countryside become characters in the story. Bewley brings alive not only the town’s geography, but the myriad of people who live there and who unexpectedly find their community in the midst of not only a dangerous fire but a dangerous killer.

While largely character driven, the story also features a layered, complex plot, the threads of which the sheriff and his deputies slowly unravel. The pacing, which builds toward the fiery climax, moves in much the way a real police investigation would. That is, slow at first, but as more pieces of the crime puzzles fall into place, both the mysteries and the pace pick up speed. A second kidnapping, on top of the climbing body count, adds the final layer of tension and suspense.

Bewley captures both the unfolding drama and the backdrop of nature and weather well throughout the novel. With her excellent attention to setting a scene, she never lets the readers forget the encroaching danger of fire:

[The sheriff] walked back down the trail and stood in front of the burned out trailer and truck. What the hell was going on in Eden County? First it was the drought. Then the fires. Now he had two men dead and a third missing.

The smoke seems to be dropping from up in the trees toward ground level. The scent of burned wood filled his head. He wondered if he would ever get rid of it.

Burning Eden is an impressive debut with crisp sentences, a pace that builds toward an edge-of-your-seat climax, engaging characters, and a villain worthy of the protagonists. All in all, this novel is a compelling work with a strong sense of place, vibrant scenes, and believable dialogue. The rapidly spiraling dangers will keep readers up well past bedtime.

Sarah Bewley

Sarah Bewley has been a freelance writer, a playwright, a licensed private investigator, a homeschool tutor, and held administrative positions in medical offices and nonprofits. She resides in Florida, where she has lived for many years. Burning Eden is her first book in the Eden County Mysteries series. She is busy at work on the second novel in the planned three-book series.




  1. I suspect (and wish for you) that this will be picked up for TV!

  2. Thank you! As they say, from your lips to God’s ears.

Leave a Reply