Earl Emerson


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 16, 2004)

"I had no doubt that our pyro had been watching for at least part of the time, watching our red lights and sirens drive past, watching as we stamped out his pitiful little fires, probably watching the Pennington house too. Pyros sometimes set fires just so they can see the firemen and the trucks…Setting fires is almost never the work of a bold man as, too, it is almost never the work of a woman. Fire-setters are a breed apart—the lonely, the loony, the lost."

Pyro by Earl Emerson

With its inside look at fire department behavior and procedure, Earl Emerson's compelling new mystery has an unusual focus. Carrying all the excitement of a police procedural, this novel is, instead, a "fireman's procedural," the story of a fire lieutenant's death twenty-five years ago in an arson fire, the failed hunt for the pyromaniac who may have set that fire, and his possible return to action in Seattle during an intense period of recent non-stop arsons.

Paul Wollf, the son of the lieutenant who died, and himself a lieutenant, has been moved around from station house to station house because of his inability to control his temper or play the bureaucratic game that is necessary for success. Angry and unpredictable, he has recently "cold cocked" the chief, a crude man who made a vulgar remark about the voluptuous widow of a firefighter Wollf admired greatly, just minutes after the man had been killed in a fire. Only four when his own father was killed, Wollf had reacted to the off-color remark personally, knowing that childhood ended forever for him and his brother the day that his father died. Unable to prevent his mother's downward spiral into depression, alcoholism, and child neglect, they were equally unable to prevent her marriage to an abusive man.

Six years later, when Paul was just ten, he and his brother witnessed his mother's murder by their stepfather, and when he came after them, too, Paul's brother, just thirteen, had murdered him. With his brother sentenced to a correctional facilty, Paul was bounced from relative to relative, building up anger against the world and blaming all his troubles on the pyro who set the fire that took his father from the family and left them defenseless. His decision to join the fire department seemed natural to him.

When a series of arsons keeps Station 6 up all night for several nights in a row, Paul Wolff, now twenty-nine, notices an odd "signature" to the arsons—cans of Shasta cherry soda left at the scene. While he is reading through some clippings that his grandmother has saved about his father's death, he notices that the same "signature" also appeared at the arsons which occurred when his father was killed twenty-five years before. Determined to find this killer, Paul Wollf is single-minded in his desire for revenge, no matter what political forces within the department may be arrayed against him.

And there are plenty of forces working against him. Chief Hertlein, whom he once punched out, does not like him and keeps transferring him. The chief of his present station, Chief Eddings, a woman with an agenda, also dislikes him and wants him to fudge his reports so she can get rid of a probationary female firefighter who is working for him, a woman whose work he finds satisfactory. Steve Slaughter, a twenty-seven year veteran, is an ally of Eddings who agrees with everything she says and tries to bully Wollf into toe-ing the line. Other firefighters find Wolff remote and standoffish.

As the arsons continue with increasing seriousness and danger to human life, Wollf's life becomes far more complicated. A single man who has never been able to form a serious relationship, perhaps due to his traumatic upbringing, Wollf avoids closeness. When his favorite film star of the past, the elderly Patricia Pennington, for whom he has every film ever made, is the victim of one of these fires, he soon comes into contact with both her granddaughter and her housekeeper, two women of markedly different temperaments, both of whom play key roles in the events which follow.

The author's use of multiple points of view contributes to the intensity of the story. Cindy Rideout, the probationary firefighter, observes Wollf with detachment, hoping that he will give her good reports as she tries to save her job. Vanessa Pennington, the granddaughter of the film star Patricia Pennington, observes the fire department and Wollf, in particular, with a clear eye and considerable sympathy, while Steve Slaughter, a veteran at the station, warns Wollf on a regular basis that he is not playing by the rules. Most dramatically, Earl Ward, a 44-year-old ex-con, reveals his thoughts as he plans his arsons. Each of these first-person points of view broadens the focus of the story, casting new light on Wollf and his problems, the fire department and its internal problems, and the madness of pyromania.

Details of procedure, intradepartmental rivalries, and insights into the men who are attracted by the danger of firefighting all contribute to the realism here, as do the fully integrated technical aspects--venting roofs, using fans to drive out smoke, handling ladders, and saving lives, all fully described. The novel is more psychological than technical or forensic, however, as it emphasizes the human aspects of the firefighting, and presents a sympathetic picture of Wollf as he struggles with his anger and his unspoken desire to conquer his demons. A fast-paced action novel filled with dramatic fire-fighting scenes, the novel is a tribute to the heroic men and women who risk their lives daily.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Pyro at Ballantine Books

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The Thomas Black Mysteries:

Mac Fontana Mystery Series:


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Earl EmersonEarl Emerson was born in 1948 in Tacoma, Washington. He is a lieutenant in the Seattle Fire Department.

He lives in North Bend, Washington.

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