CORRIDOR of MYSTERY
VOL. 3, No. 26
Seattle firefighter Earl Emerson,
a veteran mystery writer,
is now a hot property with his
new thriller 'Vertical Burn'
Emerson's first 'stand alone' thriller sizzles
By RON MILLER
After turning out 16 popular mysteries in the past 17 years, it was about time for Earl Emerson to come up with the big "breakout" novel that would vault him onto the mainstream best seller lists. If there's any justice in the publishing universe, his new book "Vertical Burn" (Ballantine, $24.95) is going to be the one to do it.
The book is earning rave reviews and is a selection of the Book of the Month Club, The Literary Guild, The Doubleday Book Club and The Mystery Guild. It also has "big Hollywood movie" written all over it. To celebrate the potential of "Vertical Burn," Ballantine also has just run off all-new editions of his 11 private eye novels featuring Seattle-based gumshoe Thomas Black.
For me, "Vertical Burn" was a genuine roller coaster ride. Like everyone else, I found it literally impossible to put down until I'd readjusted my life so I could keep reading it all day and deep into the night, savoring the suspense until the very last word on the final page.
"Our family dentist called my wife this morning and told her he read it all night, then brought it to work and kept reading it between patients," Emerson said during a book-signing gig in Bellingham, WA, on May 29. "I'm glad I wasn't one of his patients that day."
Though Emerson's brisk Thomas Black mysteries and his mysteries built around small town fire chief Mac Fontana aren't exactly sluggish in pace, "Vertical Burn" goes like a runaway train--or maybe an engine company racing to a blaze in a high-rise building. It moves the reader along as if a trapdoor has just opened under him and he's sliding down a greased chute to destinations unknown.
"Vertical Burn" is Emerson's
first 'stand alone' thriller.
The hero of "Vertical Burn" is Seattle firefighter John Finney, an intense and daring fireman who seems marked for big things in the department until his career almost disintegrates overnight after he walks out of a blazing warehouse without his partner. Though the overwhelming heat and smoke inhalation have left him unable to speak or think clearly, Finney is sure he pinpointed his partner's location for the rescue team that somehow failed to find the dying partner. Others say he panicked and left his partner behind to die.
Disgraced and turned into a pariah, Finney hangs onto his job, but is forced into a series of inferior assignments by vindictive superiors. Intent upon learning the truth about what happened at that warehouse fire, Finney continues to investigate it long after the case is formally closed. When he starts to turn up evidence that it was the work of an arsonist, it leads him into the discovery that there may be a mammoth conspiracy going on, involving corrupt landowners and possibly even fire department personnel.
Once the conspirators learn Finney is beginning to clear the smoke surrounding their activities, his life is suddenly on the line. The suspenseful journey finally reaches its climax when fire breaks out in Seattle's tallest office building and the conspirators decide to finish him off in the middle of that horrendous blaze.
After putting in 24 years as a real Seattle fireman, Emerson certainly knows this territory better than any other active fiction writer. The book is loaded with realistic descriptions of how a big city fire department tackles raging fires--and where it needs to make major improvements.
For instance, Emerson is severely critical of the almost universal requirement that modern firefighters wear heavy "bunkers" outfits that protect them from the intense heat. He says these outfits typically weigh more than 50 pounds once packed with the required gear and demand severe exertion by the firefighters to even move around, which increases their core body temperature to dangerous levels.
"You can begin to hallucinate if your body temperature reaches 105 degrees," he explained to the crowd in Bellingham.
(Though the lean and exceptionally fit Emerson is 53 years old, he recently finished No. 1 in a department race, for charity, up the stairs of Seattle's tallest building, wearing full "bunkers.")
Lighter, more heat resistant outfits may be available today, but Emerson says many departments, including his own, can't afford the mandatory two sets of "bunkers" it would have to buy to replace the gear for hundreds of firefighters all at once. He says new fire engines also are enormously expensive, so departments like Seattle often stick with older, less efficient vehicles.
"Vertical Burn" occasionally is shockingly critical of the Seattle department. In one early chapter, Emerson writes: "Finney knew it was a trademark of the Seattle Fire Department that ineptitude such as Monahan's would be either studiously ignored or steadily rewarded--never punished, rarely corrected, and in most cases barely acknowledged."
When I asked him how his superiors react to that sort of thing in his novels, Emerson grinned and said, "They love me!" He added that the fire department is a public institution and the people running it "aren't a bunch of idiots." It would seem a high profile employe like Emerson can afford to be critical, presumably because he's unofficially speaking for an awful lot of other firefighters.
But that element of serious analysis of how prepared a major American city is to fight big fires adds a layer of crucial relevance to what otherwise might be dismissed as "just a thriller." Emerson's book is a thriller, all right, but it also is a wakeup call for readers since we all live in cities with some kind of fire protection that may need a little closer scrutiny.
Emerson is well aware that "Vertical Burn" represents a big step up for him. It wasn't an easy one, to hear him tell it, and sometimes wasn't even a pleasant process. He says he finished his latest Thomas Black mystery four years ago and made his decision to write a "stand alone" thriller that wasn't going to be the start of a new series.
The appeal of doing a "stand alone" was being able to create an all-new character and take him where you want him to go within the pages of one book. When you're doing a series, he explained, you always have to worry about not compromising your character with developments that will haunt him in the next book.
"Lots of readers were very unhappy when I had Thomas Black get married," Emerson said. "With a 'stand alone,' you're free to have your character fall in love or do anything."
His editors also demanded a lot of changes and kept having him "tweak" the manuscript, which occupied more than the year it originally took him to write the book. Emerson had to give up the original opening of his novel, which he still likes, so he now has it available for his fans to read on his website, www.earlemerson.com, along with other "outtakes" he wishes were part of the current book.
The publisher also insisted he not go back to writing his series mysteries immediately after doing his first "stand alone" because it would affect the way Emerson would be "marketed" as a property along with "Vertical Burn." They gave him a deal for three consecutive "stand alone" novels. He has finished the second one, "Into the Inferno," which he calls "the best thing I've ever written." He's now outlining the third, which he says will be set in his own fire department, his own station and on his own engine rig.
Though Emerson hasn't grown tired of either Thomas Black or Mac Fontana and plans to write more about them, he says he'd really like to write about "more twisted characters--someone you probably wouldn't like if you met him in real life."
At 53, Emerson suggests he probably won't remain a fireman much longer, even if he wants to, considering the potential for injury and general wear and tear on the body. It seems an ideal time for him to break into the really big money in the writing game, getting that second career ready to go full-time if necessary.
Meanwhile, Emerson says he's amused by the number of people who tell him they think writing mysteries and thrillers must be a very exciting job.
"The exciting part of my life is the day job," he says.
And if it's anything like the life John Finney leads in "Vertical Burn," that ought to be all the excitement anyone would ever need.
© 2002 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The book jacket illustration is by Carl D. Galian and is the property of Ballantine Books. The photo of Earl Emerson is by Jeffrey Cantrell.
Ron Miller is the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series and author of the "Case Book" column on the PBS "Mystery!" website. He was a nationally syndicated TV columnist for Knight Ridder Newspapers from 1977-99 and is a former national president of the Television Critics Assn. He currently teaches mystery and popular culture extended education courses at Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
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