REVIEW: “FIRES THAT DESTROY”

Fires That DestroyFIRES THAT DESTROY by Harry Whittington (1951)

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Dennis

Some guys have all the luck.  Blondes have more fun.  You’ve heard the cliches.  But at the faceless corporation where Bernice Harper works, pretty girls get all the promotions.

And it pisses her off.

That’s the central theme in Fires That Destroy, a tight little noir novel from 1951 by Harry Whittington.

Year in and year out, she watches through her thick-lensed glasses as sexy babes in tight skirts use their attributes to glide effortlessly up the ladder while Bernice, plain and stringy-haired, stays mired in the steno pool.

She builds up a reservoir of resentment, which eventually morphs into self-hatred when her boss recommends her for the position of private secretary in the home of an important client.  Problem is, he’s blind.

She knows they foisted her off on a blind man, almost as a joke, and she doesn’t like it.  Things are made worse when she learns he’s a heavy drinker who never tires of making passes.  This intensifies her hatred, as she knows that he wouldn’t come near her if he could see.

And so begins her descent into hell.

The novel opens with Bernice looking down a staircase at the blind man’s twisted corpse.  She’s just pushed him down the stairs to his death.  In the dark silence of the house, a grandfather clock chimes, freaking her out.  She thinks, “The sound of a clock and I’m paralyzed.  How will I stand the rest of it?”

Not very well, actually.  Whittington ratchets up the stakes for Bernice in nearly every scene.  But she’s so consumed by her hateful obsession with the world she inhabits that she can’t rescue herself.  Her unraveling forms the spine of the story.

In a masterful stroke, Whittington takes the reader deep into Bernice’s mind, as she slowly disintegrates into “the most depraved and sinful woman on the face of the earth”.  Her interior dialogue with herself evokes Jim Thompson at his most dangerous.

Whittington wrote over 170 novels in his astonishing career, hopping around through various genres.  Most of his work, unfortunately, is out of print, but noir aficionados should make a point of locating a copy of Fires That Destroy.

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5 Responses to REVIEW: “FIRES THAT DESTROY”

  1. Patti Abbott

    So many book to read yet. Thanks, Mike.

  2. Sounds cracking. Another writer I’ve yet to read!

  3. Thanks for adding the link, Patti. And Paul, Whittington is a good one. His stuff is not in print (I don’t believe), but you should find some of it on Amazon, or certainly eBay.

  4. Great review. Now I’m wondering how many Whittingtons I’ll find in my storage boxes.

  5. Probably a few, Evan, since he wrote so many. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of another of his novels, “Web Of Murder”, which appears on Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals website.

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