Something Burning, by Norman Daniels, is an unconventional thriller set against the background of a forest fire. Published as a Gold Medal original in 1963, the book combines brilliantly-created set-piece plot twists with a thoroughly loathsome protagonist.
The latter is Ben Medford. Ben's wife has just passed away after a long illness, and Medford is doing his best to follow her. The book opens immediately after he's driven his car off a cliff. Ora, a mountain girl with pure heart and tarnished loins, has pulled him from the wreckage and is nursing him back to health. Although initially reluctant to return to the realm of the living, Medford pulls it together long enough to chase off some hillbilly attackers. By saving Ora (in turn), Medford briefly becomes committed to living again.
Alas, happiness is not to be (plus, we're only in chapter two at this point...)
This is pulp fiction from the early sixties - and badly written at that. Ora is tarnished goods, and despite her heart of gold, there's no happy ending for her. In fact, there's not even a happy 'middle of the book' for her. Ora manages to get herself killed within the first few chapters - flinging Ben back into depression, but also freeing him up to meet a love interest that's less used. Seriously, did any reader in 1962 ever expect our protagonist to wind up with a love interest that's been... gasp... soiled?!
Ben is immediately and predictably accused of Ora's death, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Irritated by the hillbilly population, mad with grief over his wife and just generally grumpy to begin with, Medford sets off on an incident-packed journey across the flame-plagued wilderness.
The plot, such as it is, mostly revolves around Medford's search for solace. He spends most of the book loudly proclaiming that he's willing to off himself at any moment. However, whenever that moment arrives, there's always one more excuse to keep crawling forward with his miserable (rich, woman-draped, idle, successful) existence. As much as he misses his wife, his desire to join her is tempered by his love of the material world - including romantic attachments to his imported vodka, single-shot rifle and expensive upholstery.
Medford combines his nihilistic wailing with a certain sort of bigoted, self-absorbed, assinine behaviour that makes him one of the least likeable protagonists I've ever encountered. For every moment of sympathy in which he acts like a normal human being, there are twelve scenarios in which he's an unmitigated jerk. He's rude, intolerant and outright cruel. Although there's potential for this to be literary license - given his quest for peace - he never actually grows as a character. From start to finish, he's nothing more or less than a jerk. This is made more frustrating by the forgiveness and empathy shown to him by everyone around him (with the exception of the rapacious hillbillies). Some creative generosity is allowed, but in real life, Medford would have strained the empathy of any right-thinking person within fifteen minutes.
It is worth noting that Medford concludes the book linked into one of fiction's more improbable romances. After a classic open-air slappenfuk of a (different) mountain girl that he'd previously done nothing but scorn, Medford decides that he's in love and they should be married. Rather than putting his eyes out with a spoon, the girl agrees. Fortunately for the sociological ramifications of the book, she was (previously) a virgin, so their love is somehow allowable.
The sole redeeming character in Something Burning is a hillbilly grandfather. He's an ageless, alcohol-preserved lunatic who variably acts as a Wise Old Man and comic relief. Medford keeps him supplied with bottles, and the old man keeps him supplied with safe wisdom. The end of the book, when Gramps stiffs Medford with the bar tab, is pretty much the only fair resolution that we get.
The primary frustration with Something Burning is it is a waste of some fantastic set-piece scenarios. Between the forest fire, the wrongful accusations and the romantic stand-offs - there are some potentially fantastic moments. Even with the pompous, painful Medford, the author manages to create some dramatic tension.
One scene in particular dominates the book: Medford (at this point wrongfully-accused of starting the fire), a wounded forest ranger, the actual firebug, a young woman and an old man are all trapped in a tower. The fire is coming, and will devour them all in a matter of 24 hours. The firebug has a rifle with one bullet. Only Medford can lead them out - but he refuses to go without the ranger. The firebug, however, refuses to take the ranger - as the ranger is the only one that can prove his guilt. The woman and the old man are innocent bystanders, unable to leave. The scene is packed with high-stakes brinksmanship, only disappointed by Medford's ridiculous posturing throughout.
Something Burning is a thriller packed with dramatic intentions, let down by poor characters. It would excel (so to speak) as a late 80's Cinemax movie, but, despite its high aspirations, deserves nothing more.
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