has been several years since we’ve heard from Robert Ellis. A
media consultant, Ellis received critical acclaim for his
novels THE DEAD ROOM and ACCESS TO POWER, which combined
noir mystery and political elements. CITY OF FIRE, his newly
published work, is a bit more personal --- a dark and disturbing
journey into the product of a twisted mind.
CITY OF FIRE begins with the brutal murder of a pregnant woman in
her Los Angeles area home. LAPD Detective Lena Gamble, running a
murder investigation for the first time, quickly zeroes in on the
victim’s husband, and indeed the case against him appears to
be open and shut. Gamble discovers, however, that not only is he
falsely accused, but that this killing is one in a string of
several. She is further unsettled when her investigation suddenly
intersects with the still-unsolved murder of her brother that
occurred several years previously.
The trail of clues leading from one murder to the next is sometimes
contradictory at best and seemingly impossible at worst. It is not
until Gamble comes full circle, professionally and personally, that
she arrives at a solution that challenges everything she previously
had known to be true.
This is an unrelentingly grim work, a modern classic of noir
fiction that takes the reader on a journey into the rarely
chartered nether reaches of the damaged soul. Ellis also utilizes a
forest fire, stoked by the Santa Ana winds, to serve as a backdrop,
metaphor and...something else here, providing a sense of underlying
urgency to the proceedings, even as it is clear that the killer
will strike again and again. Ellis's graphically phrased prose is
memorable in itself, but his main strength is his plotting.
As intricate and complex as the story is, Ellis takes great care in
leading the reader slowly, so that one never feels lost or hurried
even as he pulls his audience closer and closer to the abyss. While
one is left wishing that Ellis wrote more often, a five-year wait
for a work of this caliber is a fair tradeoff.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 27, 2010