By Robert Bloch
"My name is Philip Dempster; I'm sleeping."
The journalist in American genre fiction is a convenient substitute for the police officer. As a protagonist, he can find himself investigating crimes and being put in dangerous situations, and as it is his job to do so, the reader finds it believable. In many ways, the fictional journalist is something akin to a more-modern private eye: he's involved in the case for his job, he operates more on instinct than training, and he doesn't go to the authorities at the first sign of trouble because he wants to wrap things up for himself.
So it's not surprising that Robert Bloch's novel Firebug reads so much like pulpy detective fiction. Blocked writer Philip Dempster accepts a job with the local paper to make ends meet, investigating a number of cults that have begun to pop up in recent years. However, while on the story, seemingly every cult-related locale he visits is burned to the ground shortly afterwards.
Dempster is, understandably, the prime suspect in the arson investigation, but he couldn't have done it. Or could he? He does drink too much to escape a past that he can't bear to face, and blacks out on occasion...
Dempster is surrounded by a colorful supporting cast of fanatics, charlatans and true believers, and it seems that Bloch had done his homework in regards to both cults and pyromania. The psychology behind both subjects is brushed upon in his usual clipped, purple prose, and although he is obviously only an armchair psychologist, there does seem to be some truth behind what he says.
It's not a horror story by any means, and it's not the least bit terrifying no matter what the cover blurbs will have you believe, but it was, for the most part, an enjoyable little crime thriller. It did run out of steam towards the end, but it wrapped up rather nicely despite it all. It's probably not one I will ever revisit, but it's worth the day or two investment that it would take to make your way through.
"My name is Philip Dempster; my dreams are horrible."