I forgot Larry’s last name sometime in the past thirty years, but I never forgot what he taught me about fire.
Larry was the top arson investigator for Kentucky “back in the day” when I ran the Western Kentucky News Bureau for Scripps Howard. We’d cross paths when I covered various fires that were particularly large, suspect, or involved fatalities. Ever curious, I asked lots of questions. Larry was a talkative soul, and was quick to supply the answers.
I found him and fire so interesting that when he was in town—Henderson, KY—I scheduled long lunch dates with him. Often these led to nifty news articles. He invited me to a couple of arson training courses he ran, and in one of the programs I got to play the role of the arsonist.
He taught me that sometimes you can look at a building fire while it rages and tell if it was deliberately set. It’s in how the fire burns, how it travels.
“Fire talks,” he told me. That’s a line I use in my latest Piper Blackwell book, The Dead of Sled Run. Some of Larry’s wisdom spews out the mouth of the arson investigator I put on the scene in Sled.
He schooled me about burn patterns, accelerants, and oddities like lightbulbs. Sometimes a lightbulb melts, pointing like an arrow to where in the building a fire originated. He also talked about motive.
Larry kept meticulous records on fires in cities throughout Kentucky. In Henderson, where my office perched, he had a list of residences that reported kitchen fires every six or seven years. The pattern, he said, was that those homeowners wanted their kitchens updated and used insurance money from the fires to do that. Of course, Larry managed to put a stop to that kitchen renovation practice, proving arson and sending some folks to jail.
Larry was a genius with fire and motives. And I count myself fortunate for being in his circle those decades past. I wonder sometimes if he’s still kicking. He was in his forties or maybe early fifties then. I should put on my reporter’s hat and go digging, recover his last name and see if he’s still around. Let him know I still appreciate him.
Fire is central to the plot in Sled Run, and beyond my recollections with Larry and the arson training I received, I dug into true crime shows and news reports.
I watched a documentary on Thomas Sweatt, the most prolific serial arsonist in America. He was arrested almost twenty years ago and confessed to more than three hundred and forty arson fires. Four people were killed. He’s still in prison.
Fire can be great for a writer to play with in a book, descriptive, evocative, gut-wrenching. I covered too many of them in my newspaper days. The ones where kids died were the roughest. I remember three kids burning to death in Kentucky, left home alone while the mother stepped out to go grocery shopping. I witnessed a semi-truck fire I will never get out of my brain, the driver thrashing in the cab while flames engulfed him. The firetrucks could not get down the steep embankment. Eventually the fire was put out. I’d climbed down the embankment to cover it, and I could include the awful details, but I’ll stop with … fire is cruel.
And so are the people who purposely set them.
Gee, that sounds all preachy, and that wasn’t what I intended when I started talking about Larry. I have other “Larrys” in my life who I treasure and assist in making my fiction feel real. Bill Gilsdorf and Mike Black, former lawmen who really know their stuff. Rob Scales, my legal go-to. I have their last names (handy thing, eh, so I can fully address Christmas cards).
Now I need to go find Larry’s.
The Dead of Sled Run by Jean Rabe (Boone Street Press) Out Now
It is almost Christmas and yards glow with twinkling lights. But more than chestnuts are roasting. A raging fire sweeps through the decorated landscape of Sled Run, destroying the home of Chief Deputy Oren Rosenberg and killing two. An accident? Or did something toxic fuel the flames? Sheriff Piper Blackwell and Detective Basil Meredith believe Oren was targeted and are tasked with finding motive and means before more than the holiday burns bright. With many clues reduced to ashes, can Piper and Basil catch the culprits before they strike again? Or is this blaze just the start of the most murder-filled time of the year?
About the Author:
USA Today best-seller, Jean Rabe's impressive writing career spans decades, starting as a newspaper reporter and bureau chief. From there she went on to become the director of RPGA, a co-editor with Martin H. Greenberg for DAW books, and, most notably, Rabe is an award-winning author of more than forty science fiction/fantasy and murder mystery thrillers. She writes mysteries and fantasies, because life is too short to be limited to one genre--and she does it with dogs tangled at her feet, because life is too short not to be covered in fur.
Jean Rabe’s Amazon author page can be found here.