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Book review: Where There’s Smoke by Sterling Stewart

Near the end of Stewart Sterling’s 1946 novel Where There’s Smoke, Ben Pedley rips the dress off a sultry songstress named Leila Lownes and then throws his body on her.

But it’s not what you think. 

Pedley is the Fire Marshall of New York City and has been investigating a series of arsons that somehow center on Leila, a rising star of radio.  In fact, he and Leila find themselves in the middle — literally — of another arson blaze with the flames closing in on them and already setting fire to Leila’s dress.

It looks like the end.  Pedley rips the dress from Leila to save her, for the moment, from being burned, and covers her body with his own to give her a last bit of protection before they both die.

But they don’t.

A firefighter in “The Suit” begins to lumber through the conflagration, looking like an

asbestos-coated grizzly bear with the diving helmet headpiece and the square of gleaming glass for the eyes, [holding] in its mittened paws a thin, twelve-foot applicator, an extension nozzle-tip bent at right angles to the length.

From the nozzle came a mist of fine, drizzling spray that cut down flame, blacked out embers and sent a cloud of steam boiling up from the floor. Pedley felt an invisible screen drop between him and that withering blast of heat.

“Intense and concentrated alertness.”

That’s the rock-‘em-sock-‘em end to Pedley’s two days of non-stop detective work and to Sterling’s fast-moving, intriguingly detailed novel.  All that’s left is for Pedley to catch his breath and identify the arsonist-killer.  And the motive.

Everything in the novel revolves around Leila, a hard-luck kid whose life has been a great success as a singer while a great confusion as the object of desire of a great many men, including one who used and oppressed her and another who loved her but suffered deeply from spending 28 months behind Japanese lines in Burma during World War II.

The star of Where There’s Smoke is Pedley who, in his detective work, isn’t averse to stepping on important toes, even those of a bullying police lieutenant, and not shy about how he questions suspects.  And, given her history with men, Leila finds him really confusing:

Everything about Pedley was slightly alarming.  His muscular compactness, that burn-scar on his face, the high-cheekboned features, the tightly sensitive mouth.  In the way he had come into the room — the way he moved about it, restlessly — there was an expression of intense and concentrated alertness.

“Nerve and coolness of judgement”

Pedley is the central character in nine mysteries by Sterling, starting with Five Alarm Funeral in 1942 through Too Hot to Handle in 1961.

And, as a mystery sleuth, he’s particularly interesting since he knows — and the reader learns — a lot about fires and firefighting.  For instance, Sterling makes it clear that, although the Fire Department has a chain of command, it’s a different sort of hierarchy than in other places, such as the military.

Pedley has a secretary, a disabled fireman named Barney, and “there was, between him and the marshal, none of the stiffness which might have been found in a similar situation between a police inspector and his office clerk.”  There was a reason for that:

The risks men took together in the Fire Department broke down such rigid relationships as existed in the Army; the top brass among the fire fighters shared the daily dangers equally with the youngest black-shirted probationer laying spaghetti or ventilating a roof.

A firefighter (“blaze beater”) needed to trust his commander as much as infantry soldiers had to trust the artillery officers laying down a barrage ahead of the troops as they marched forward across a battlefield.  But it was easier because the commander and the other superiors were there risking the same dangers:

When one wrongly directed stroke of an ax could send a wall crashing in the wrong direction; when one misdirected stream might cut off a man’s retreat by driving flames across a door, or weaken a sagging floor — under such pressure of circumstance — a trust based on mutual respect for nerve and coolness of judgement was essential.

And, Sterling adds, “Nobody wearing the Maltese cross — not even the Chief of Department — issued orders from the rear.”

Fans of Shostakovich

Yet, Pedley isn’t just knowledgeable about fires.  He’s also an expert on classical music, such as the works of Dimitri Shostakovich, and livens up his single life with a snappy-talking girlfriend named Ollie:

The girl who came in was tall and willowy, perhaps twenty-two or twenty-three years old.  She wore a mink coat that would have roused comment at a furriers’ convention, but she didn’t need the coat to attract attention.  Her face said she was sensitively intelligent. 

Her sloe eyes were subtle invitation, her movements a suggestive challenge.  The combined impression was that of a girl who has just worked her way through college by doing a strip tease in a chorus line.

And she’s a fan of Shostakovich!

Sterling himself exhibits some highbrow interests in Where There’s Smoke.  For example, when Leila is singing, he has Pedley recall a quote from Walt Whitman which begins: “All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.”

And, when the crime is solved, Pedley is moved to quote from a Gilbert & Sullivan song from The Mikado:

“My object most sublime

I shall achieve in time —

To make the punishment fit the crime —

The punishment — fit the crime.”

Patrick T. Reardon

11.29.22

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