Sunday, November 4, 2018

Five Alarm Funeral: Review

Stewart Sterling's Five Alarm Funeral (1942) is the first book-length story featuring Fire Marshall Ben Pedley. Pedley started his career investigating fires in the pulps and continued in hardback and paperbacks through the 1960s. I mentioned in my previous Sterling review (Where There's Smoke) that it was easy to see the pulp origins of Sterling's writing. If it was evident 1946, it is even more so here when he was writing fresh from the realm of pulps. Ben is much more hard-hitting (knocking a suspected firebug around in the opening pages) and fast-talking. He has his own rules and code of honor and doesn't mind breaking official ones if it gets the villain in the end. And, yet...he has a real problem with Fire Chief who's on the take. Bending a rule to put away a pyro is one thing, raking in dough on the side for your own gain is quite another.

In this first novel, Ben is on the hunt for the mastermind behind a series of fires. These are particularly bad because someone has been hurt or killed in every one of them...the most recent having involved kids. He's got his finger on the hired firebug--a well-known blaze specialist that he's never been able to put away before. This time he's got the goods on Harry Gooch, but he wants more. Harry always works on commission, never for his own lust for fire and Ben suspects the man behind him is a real lunatic. He also knows there must be some logic to the lunacy, but can't figure it out. The suspect list is limited--there's Lois Eldredge who's suspiciously on the scene of two of the fires; there's her father always in the background; there's Cleve Thurlow, Lois's boyfriend and a man who knows insurance; and there's a fire chief who's on the make. But finding the motive is the tricky part. There's no connection that makes an insurance scam seem plausible--the buildings aren't owned by the same people. It isn't until he asks his men to dig up information on every single person who lived in the buildings that he begins to see a pattern. A deadly pattern of revenge for a very old crime. 

As in Where There's Smoke, there are periodic descriptions that raise the story out of the pulp-era range. When Sterling describes the city and the firefighters hard at work at the many raging fires, the scene is vivid and you can almost smell the smoke and see the flames licking the apartment building. His visuals and his high-intensity action are Sterling's strong points. Ben Pedley is also a hero to love. He's a strong man, but he's human enough to sometimes lead with his chin and get a belt across the chops every once in a while. But he's dogged and determined enough to see things through until he solves the case and gets his man (or woman, as the case may be). Pulp action and hard-boiled dialogue may not be my usual fare, but I do enjoy the Fire Marshall Pedley series. I look forward to reading the third one (Alarm in the Night) and hunting for the remaining six. 

[Finished 11/3/18]

*****Spoiler--necessary to prove how this fits the Monthly Motif Challenge******
This is where the family dynamics comes in. Our pyromaniac goes on his fire-binge in revenge for the deaths of his parents. He has sworn to kill everyone connected to those who lynched his father, burned his house to the ground, and caused the death of his mother. He even takes revenge on the innocent daughter of one of his victims--adopting her and bringing her up in luxury with the plan to strip it away from her and frame her for his crimes.

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