Vertical Burn
Earl Emerson
(Ballantine Books) $24.95 hardcover

I was reading Earl Emerson's Vertical Burn in May when the New York Times printed a detailed September 11 diary from the World Trade Center. The diary is a human narrative from inside the two sudden cages of the Twin Towers: a floor-by-floor account of the conversations and choices following the panicky strands of fragile, collapsing logic. Vertical Burn is a parallel and oddly cathartic companion to real-life 9/11 stories, possessing the plot and resolution we can't impose on the New York tragedy--and that plot is well contained and close to home. The novel is set in Seattle, in buildings Emerson knows as intimately as he knows the practical physics of fire. (Emerson is an active Seattle fireman, a lieutenant at Station #6.)

I don't mean to suggest that you should read Vertical Burn just because Emerson is your next-door neighbor; I am advising you to read it because it is engaging. I found this book very hard to put down. Emerson is especially gifted at dialogue and pacing, and he renders highly technical information understandable while skillfully walking his readers, in metaphoric boots and bunkers, through the terrifying chaos of structural fires.

In Emerson's novel, fires occur in familiar neighborhoods, like Lake Union and Ballard. Small fires build toward a crescendo inside Seattle's own 76-story skyscraper, the Bank of America (formerly Columbia) Tower. Another twist in Vertical Burn is that the firefighters are the villains and the heroes. There are corrupt firefighters, badass lady firefighters, old-school alcoholic firefighters. It's a relief to see them made human again.

The book's protagonist, John Finney, flip-flops between his intuition, his commitment to his firefighting team, and his awareness that some team members are corrupt. Sometimes Finney flips and flops so much, it's hard to want to follow him into burning buildings, much less trust him in political and departmental conflagrations.

I wasn't sure I trusted Emerson either (as a writer, I mean) when I met him for coffee at Tweeds in North Bend. He seemed too perfect. I dropped my pen, spilled coffee, gestured too much. Emerson never fidgeted. He was athletic, tidy, and cynical, but not in the least pretentious. He drank lemonade. It was hard not to be charmed.

Emerson says he lives in North Bend because the air is better. He also likes to run the 3,500 feet of trails straight to the top of nearby Mount Si. This is only part of Emerson's exercise regime; he also mountain bikes, skis, and lifts weights. He's like a hard-bodied Henry Fonda who looks 30 (despite some gray hair) instead of his actual age, 53.

I'm not the first person to ask Emerson whether he wrote Vertical Burn in response to September 11. "I started Vertical Burn in 1998 and finished editing it last year. I see the parallels with this book and New York," he admits, "but I don't think that's spooky. Having a fire in a high-rise--that's the biggest nightmare a fireman can think of. My department has talked about it for years. Do we answer the phone when it happens? The only thing I considered changing after 9/11 was not making firemen into bad guys."

I request some good stories. Emerson says he always stays below the sixth floor when he stays overnight in a high-rise hotel. He tells me about the time a Seattle fire truck rushing to intercept a suspicious bag in the I-90 tunnel hit the bag at high speed while calling dispatch to pinpoint its location. Fortunately, the sack was full of concrete.

"No one in the department ever talks about being scared," he says. "We play a kind of game. We ask each other, 'Would you go into a building if you knew it would come down in five minutes? In 10 minutes?' People in the department who watched 9/11 draw lines for themselves. I was surprised at where some people draw the line. I wondered if I could trust that person."

He describes how he would handle a terrorist scenario involving, for instance, two bombs exploding 20 minutes apart: divide a crew in half to minimize exposure, use tag teams, and scoop up bodies, running them outside. The plan sounds firm in theory, but Emerson concedes, "I almost know what I'd do, but I don't know for sure. One tenth of a second means courage or cowardice."

Emerson dropped out of the University of Washington at 19 because he wanted to be a writer. "I actually wrote 12 books before I was ever published, most of them comic suspense." His wife of 34 years supported him during his early writing days, before he became a firefighter. He started writing mysteries in the 1980s, selling his first book in 1983. So far, he's published 16 books, 11 of which are part of a private-eye series.

Women constitute his biggest audience, but he also attracts the odd male pyromaniac. A few years ago, renowned serial arsonist and firefighter John Leonard Orr (the focus of Joseph Wambaugh's Fire Lover) came to several of Emerson's readings in California. At one reading, Orr gave Emerson a business card. Twenty minutes later, a fire mysteriously started across the street. At a bookstore reading in Venice Beach, Emerson spotted Orr in the crowd; a few minutes afterward a fire broke out in an adjacent alley.

Emerson's next mystery novel will concern a fire department in a small Eastside town modeled on North Bend. "The first-person narrator will be a jerk," Emerson discloses. "Don't forget your pen," he tells me as we get up to leave Tweeds. A little too self-assured. A little too perfect.

Support The Stranger