A surprisingly dull description of techniques that investigators employ to determine the causes of fires.
Faith (The World the Railways Made, 1991, etc.) begins by declaring that he wishes to reveal “what happens when a fire has been put out, the survivors rescued and the victims carried away.” He then discusses the investigations of some of the most disastrous fires in recent history: the DuPont Plaza Hotel (1986), London’s King’s Cross Underground Station (1987), the Coconut Grove nightclub (1942), the MGM Grand Hotel (1980), and many others. But what ought to be fascinating is instead numbing. The most serious problem is stylistic: Faith conducted numerous interviews with fire investigators on both sides of the Atlantic, but instead of synthesizing their observations, he elected to quote—often at wearisome length—these earnest but frequently tedious and inarticulate characters. Another weakness is the superficial psychology he applies: one Seattle arsonist committed his crimes, suggests Faith, “perhaps” because “he had been sexually abused by a volunteer firefighter when he was twelve years old.” Despite these problems, however, Faith reveals a number of engaging tidbits—e.g., the “scientific investigation” of fires has developed only in the past 20 to 30 years, a 1911 factory fire in New York City occasioned the first fire-safety codes in the US, more than 90 percent of arsonists are male, and people tend not to panic in fires (despite pervasive notions to the contrary). The chapter dealing with the five-year investigation of “The Pillow Pyro” is by far the best, for here Faith uses his journalistic skills to reveal how arson investigators caught one of their own setting fires in California. Too often, however, the author declares only what is obvious (e.g., gasoline is one of “the worst liquid dangers” in a fire).
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” the saying goes. But not here. (8 pp. color photos)