Earl Emerson is the author of the Shamus Award winning Thomas Black detective series. This is a series that concentrates quite heavily on the characters in the story and their development throughout the series as well as providing well-plotted mysteries. With VERTICAL BURN, Emerson has gone for a more action-oriented story, relying on his intimate knowledge of the fire brigade and fire fighting to enthuse his audience. To a large extent it works, the adrenaline charged brushes with death while combating a fire provide the story's high points, no questions asked.
The story's protagonist is John Finney, a fireman of considerable experience with the Seattle Fire Department. The book gets off to a furious start when Finney's company is called out to a fire and when they arrive they are faced with a large building full of smoke with the possibility of victims trapped inside and no backup because all other crews are busy, called out to various alarms, both real and false. During their search of the building, Finney and his partner become trapped by a collapsed wall with the final result seeing Finney barely escape with his life, but his partner dying in the fire.
The fallout from this tragedy is substantial for Finney both emotionally and physically. Apart from losing his partner and mentor, he suffers some pretty serious burns from the fire, but worse, he knows that in the eyes of his fellow firemen he is to blame for his partner's death. Due to memory loss thanks to the smoke inhalation he suffered, he can't be sure himself whether or not he was to blame.
A second fire results in a similar outcome to the first. This time Finney is certain that facts are being fabricated by the fire investigators that make Finney look, at best incompetent and at worst, criminally negligent. It gets to the point where it looks very likely he is going to be accused of arson. It suddenly dawns on him that there is a serious conspiracy taking place from within the department. What also becomes very obvious is that he is being set up as the fall guy for this conspiracy and the frame is working disturbingly well.
Left with very few allies in the department, he feels his only course of action is to start his own investigation. He aims to get to the bottom of why these fires had been set and how he might be able to convince the department chiefs of his innocence. It's this investigation that the storyline hinges with the action sequences merely a background setting.
The story climaxes with a massive high-rise building fire that requires Finney to act as the hero in a bid to rescue over 200 people who are trapped. Although far-fetched in many aspects, not the least of which is how he came to be at the fire in the first place, these are scenes of pure entertainment as feats of super-human strength and astounding ingenuity take over.
I enjoyed the breathless action sequences that came about each time a fire was fought. The fear and confusion felt during a fire was described by Emerson in such a way that it was obvious that he had experienced these feelings first hand. These sequences were strong and compelling.
The focus is so much on the action sequences and the intricate details of fire fighting that the characterisation and the interaction between characters suffers somewhat. I felt the dialog didn't ring true and the reasons that prompted the conspiracy were so incredibly weak as to be non-existent. It was the conspiracy that really drove the whole storyline and when that disappeared, the whole story lost it's credibility in my mind.
I also had a real problem with the inconsistent reactions of Finney. He swung from submissive yes-man to a take-charge action hero within a page time and again and this not only became confusing, I also found it incredibly frustrating, particularly whenever he was faced with some pretty hefty and occasionally outlandish accusations and decided to say or do nothing about them.
For all out action with raging infernos as the focus, this is quite a thrilling book and certainly achieves that purpose. However, I thought it was hampered by the lack of believable storyline that is needed to give the book its substance.