- City of Fire
- St. Martin’s Minotaur, 307 pp.
Lots of Smoke, Little Heat
The title of this book, City of Fire, promises a great deal of suspense, tension and do-or-die action especially when factoring in the story setting of Los Angeles, a loony-tunes city full of bizarre and exotic plot possibilities. Unfortunately, despite being competently written by Robert Ellis, the murder mystery does not deliver. Making the situation worse is the fact that the conclusion to the main arc and ancillary incidents are either barely hinted at or not pointed to in the first 290 pages. Everything is wrapped up like a last-second Xmas present purchased on the run after work on Christmas Eve, which often means too little too late.
Because everything of substance related to the plot’s finale mainly comes in the last twenty or so pages of the book, reviewing this title is tricky. Explaining perceived shortcomings in Ellis’s book could easily spoil the ending for other readers, but then as they say “Where’s the first tee and what’s the course record?” So away we go.
There seems to be more than enough mysteries and curiosities to make the book work and work quite well. A young woman is found in her bed by her husband, the hapless victim sliced from stomach to neck. The LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division’s Detective Lena Gamble determines a scenario that has victim Nikki Brant’s husband as the killer. Not quite so fast. The murder turns out to be the first in a series of gruesome crimes perpetrated against beautiful women by the same man dubbed Romeo by the press. Gamble is been caught in the headlights of high-profile murder in the past when her rock-star brother was shot on the late-night streets of Hollywood years ago, a grisly homicide the detective hasn’t fully recovered from.
As the story progressives a fire in the LA area kicks up, whipped into an inferno frenzy by the scorching Santa Anna winds. The potential for the fire to add drama to the narrative is ever-present, obvious, but never used to any extent. Yes there are brief allusions to smoke-filled air, the red-hot orange glow of flames licking away at the region, but the conflagration really has no impact on the book’s outcome.
The fire isn’t really mentioned until page 267:
…Something was burning. She could smell it in the air. When she checked the sky and looked to the east, she saw the plume of smoke over the city. Yesterday it had been a grass fire. Today, with the Santa Anna winds still blowing, people in La Crescenta were losing their homes.
Now there is the potential for the fire to become a main character in the story much like the hurricane in the movie Key Largo where Bogart and Bacall deal with Edward G. Robinson’s nasty Johnny Rocco. The hurricane is the backdrop for the violence and also serves as a natural metaphor for the action. Think what a blaze chewing up LA could have offered, instead the fire is little more than an excuse for the book’s title. Slight mention is made of the neglected beast like:
The parking garage was just across the street, yet lost in a blur of dust and smoke that burned her eyes. Ash was falling from the sky as if snow, the smell of the fire, extremely close…She looked up at the sky for the Library Tower. After a beat, the ring of lights at the top cut a fleeting path through the clouds, throbbing like a beacon, then vanishing again.
That’s pretty much it for the fire’s bit part in City of Fire.
The most developed portion of the book concerns the death of Gamble’s brother – the possible suspects, the motive and the final reveal, that and the role an apparently antagonistic cop in her department plays in the final outcome.
Ellis began his writing as a producer and director in film and TV, winning a New York Film Festival award for his documentary with National Geographic. He’s the author of Access to Power and The Dead Room. He grew up in Pennsylvania, lived in LA for sixteen years and now bides his time between that city and Connecticut. With this much writing experience, especially in the quick in-and-outs of film and television, it’s surprising that there is not more foreshadowing of what the outcome of all of the bloody mayhem turns out to be. There are red herrings aplenty, but once finished reading the novel I’m left with a sense of annoyance at these diversions, so often delightful necessities in other mysteries, but close to being filler in this one.
As I mentioned earlier, Ellis is a solid writer at the very least and the following scene near the conclusion displays this:
She gave her partner’s body a push, rolling him off the girl toward the wall. From the amount of blood, she sensed that he had been gutted, but kept her eyes pinned on Wilson. She ripped the tape away from her mouth. Spotting a set of keys on the floor, she unlocked the woman’s wrists and ankles. But it didn’t seem to make much difference. Harriet Wilson was frozen in terror. When the woman opened her mouth, nothing audible came out. She was in another place, two or three stations beyond words.
Shades of James Ellroy or even from John D. MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky. A great paragraph. The last sentence is a killer. If only there were more of this writing in the book and a lot more heat in City of Fire.
John Holt and his wife, photographer Ginny Holt, are currently finishing up a pair of related books – “Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real-Time” (to be published by AK Press in February 2009) and “Searching For Native Color – Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout.” John’s work has appeared in publications that include “Men’s Journal,” “Fly Fisherman,” “Fly Rod and Reel,” “The Angling Report,” “American Angler,” “The Denver Post,” “Audubon,” “Briarpatch,” “counterpunch.org,” “Travel and Leisure,” “Art of Angling Journal,” “E – The Environmental Magazine,” “Field and Stream,” “Outside,” “Rolling Stone,” “Gray’s Sporting Journal” and “American Cowboy.” Chesapeake Bay Bridge