Fires That Destroy

FIRES THAT DESTROY Harry Whittington 1st P 1951 Gold Medal #190 Smoking GGA Cov! | eBay

Whittington was known as the “king of the paperbacks” and published in excess of 170 paperback novels in his lifetime. “Fires that Destroy” is a pulp crime novel, but it is not your classic action-packed crime story. And, don’t read it expecting to be kept in suspense. There’s little question from the first pages who is the killer or why or what the various characters will end up being.

The novel is not about the action so much as the psychological motivations of the main character, Bernice Harper. In Joe Lansdale’s introduction to the novel, “Fires that Destroy” is compared to the great Cain novels, which pick apart characters and show their descent into worlds of guilt and compromise.

Even though this novel is a character study rather than an wham-bam action story, it is somehow compelling and, once I started reading, it became very difficult to put down. The questions you are left with after reading this are whether Bernice is to sympathized with or not. Is she simply a horrible person motivated by greed and lust or is she thrust into this situation by how society has treated her. She suffers from “ugly duckling syndrome” and thinks other women have always gotten their way because of their looks and their figure and that she has suffered in comparison because she is somewhat lacking in the looks and appeal. Is this a justification for murder? Is it a justification for buying her way to happiness?

Is she somewhat out of her mind? Even when she is put in a good situation- being a companion to a rich, handsome blind man – she can’t trust that he would have picked her if he had sight and she
“hated herself because it was a joke to pawn her off as a looker on a man who couldn’t see her.”

In the end, is she just a sad case of someone to be pitied or has the narrator fooled you into thinking this person who is motivated by uncontrollable lust and greed is someone decent if but for the way people look at her or if but for the men she picked or bought. “She grew up determined to have all the things she’d been denied,” Whittington explains. “To want was one thing – that was hell. To be
wanted – that was all that mattered. Her eyes filled with tears. Without that, you had nothing.”

It is, at base, a novel of obsession: “When finally you admit that you are going to kill a man, your obsession take over. You begin to plan how you can do it – and get away with it.” But, does the obsession go away or are you forever haunted by guilt and shame for what you did.

Do you always think everyone suspects you or everyone is after you? How far can you run? How far can you hide from those nightmare eyes that keep haunting you? This is a terrific novel and it makes you wonder why Whittington was not more widely recognized as one of the great American writers of the mid-twentieth century.

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