“Charred on the outside, but raw underneath…” City of Fire by Robert Ellis

January 21, 2008 at 3:40 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

city-of-fire.jpg Sometimes I just need crime fiction set in California. This yearning is the counterweight to my addiction to British police procedurals. Luckily for me, I happened upon Robert Ellis’s stark novel of lust and betrayal.

Lena Gamble is a detective with the elite Robbery-Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. She is called in to investigate the murder of Nikki Brant, a young wife and mother-to-be. Nikki’s husband James quickly becomes the chief suspect. But there is far more to this case than meets the eye. Lena and her team don’t realize it at first, but they are about to discover that the killing of Nikki Brant is only the latest in a string of atrocities that are eventually linked to a single source. That source turns out to be one of the scariest, most twisted, just plain grotesque perpetrators I have encountered in fiction in quite a while. For reasons that seem logical at the time, he acquires the sobriquet Romeo.

Initially, I had misgivings about this book, in that its villain appeared at first blush to be a serial killer. As I’ve said before, I dislike that subgenre of crime fiction, serial killers being for the most part out and out nut jobs who don’t need to be assigned any motivation outside of their own malice-fueled craziness. But this killer chooses his victims carefully and for very specific reasons. It is up to the team from robbery-homicide to discover those reasons, and thus, Romeo’s true identity.

About halfway through City of Fire, the plot kicks into high gear with an abrupt turn that I never saw coming; even more shocking twists follow this one, right up to the book’s frenetic climax.

Lena Gamble is a very appealing protagonist. She has the good fortune to live in a lovely house in the hills overlooking the city, but she deeply regrets the way in which she came by her situation: she inherited the house from her brother. David Gamble, a gifted, successful musician, had been murdered five years prior; the crime was never solved.

robert-ellis2.jpg Robert Ellis writes with skill and assurance. I like his description of the view from Lena’s house: “She could see the clouds plunging in at eye level from the ocean fifteen miles away, the Westside still shrouded in a dreary gray. To the east the marine layer had already burned off, and the Library Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago, glowed a fiery yellow-orange that seemed to vibrate in the clear blue sky.”

This being California, a malevolent act nature-or a malevolent act of man which is then fueled by nature – makes an almost obligatory appearance. This time, as indicated by the title, it’s a wildfire. Smoke and debris make the frantic search for a killer even more difficult, not to mention dangerous. (I guess one advantage of setting a novel in California is that there’s a wide variety of apocalyptic events that an author can throw into the mix. See Mike Davis’s The Ecology of Fear for the full panoply of choices!)

Before I sign off on this largely positive review, I feel that I must warn potential readers of the scenes of violence and perverted sex that appear in this novel. Yes, I found City of Fire extremely compelling reading: the pace was brisk, the characters were intriguing, the writing was very good, the atmospherics spot on. But there were also times when I came very close to being completely grossed out. It was a great read, but part of me breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.

Much great crime fiction is set in Southern California, from Raymond Chandler to Michael Connelly, and including my personal favorite, Ross MacDonald. But the Bay Area also has its fair share, most notably repesented in the novels of Dashiell Hammett.

In his book Sleuths Inc. Studies of Problem Solvers, Hugh Eames quotes the British historian Lord Bryce, author of The American Commonwealth (1888) His Lordship has some interesting theories concerning the Golden State’s historic tendency toward lawlessness:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interference with, or suppressions of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the Union.’

Lord Bryce is especially blunt when assessing the City by the Bay:

‘Thet scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulates in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constitutent of the population.’


  1. Joe said,

    City of Fire was the best book I read in 2007. I can’t wait for the next one.

  2. Rachel said,

    A jazz-loving detective that lives high up in the Hollywood Hills? Was Ellis
    going for a female Harry Bosch??? Haven’t we been here before with the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly? This book was not too bad, but could have been better. Having said that I would read another book which features the Gamble character, because I think the potential is there for a good series.

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