Seldom has a novel left me with a set of such conflicted impressions as has Libby Fischer Hellmann’s first stand-alone novel, Set the Night on Fire. One part of me loves the book as a solidly written thriller, another part cringes at how accurately Hellmann pegged the absurdity of the 1960s revolutionaries, and a final part of me just cannot take the book’s two main villains seriously. The first two points are so solidly in Hellmann’s favor, however, that I can easily get past my villain problem.
Lila Hilliard is on the run. Her father and brother have just died in a mysterious house fire and now someone is trying to kill her. Her problem is that she has no idea who is chasing her, or why. What she does know is that she is still alive only because her would-be assassin is not very good at his job – so far – and that she seems to have acquired a human guardian angel somewhere along the way. And when that guardian angel steps forward to identify himself, Lila learns things about herself and her father that turn her life upside down.
She learns that her parents, along with a few thousand other college students and college drop-outs, came to Chicago in 1968 to protest the Viet Nam War at the Democratic National Convention being held there. Unfortunately for Lila, her parents became involved with a small group of domestic terrorists willing to use bombs to make their point. Innocent people were killed, arrests were made, and people went to prison – her father, among them. Now someone wants to kill anyone even remotely connected to that group of friends, including, apparently, their children. This is good thriller material and Hellmann develops it well.
More than a third of the book is told in flashback to the years between 1968 and 1970. This is the portion of the book in which Hellmann develops her characters and introduces political and personal conflicts between them that will have major repercussions in the present. To Hellmann’s credit, this is also the portion of Set the Night on Fire that I found most difficult to read. Her portrayal of the radicals is so accurate that it reminded me of everything I hated about the sixties, especially the naïve pretentiousness of empty-headed terrorists willing to bomb private property at the risk of innocent lives in order to make some political point they only half understood. Sadly, just as in real life, some of the people in Hellmann’s novel still live in Chicago where they are corrupting yet another generation of young people. That Hellmann could make me feel the same level of contempt for these people that I felt in the sixties and seventies is, indeed, a credit to her writing skills.
Set the Night on Fire is a nice blend of thriller with historical fiction, one that should be of interest to those that have been around long enough to have experienced the sixties for themselves and to those who only remember hearing their parents speak of those days.
Rated at: 4.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)