Wed 25 Apr 2012
by Bill Pronzini
OWEN CAMERON – The Fire Trap. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1957. Also published as The Demon Stirs: Dell #983, paperback, 1958.
Owen Cameron is one of those talented but unfortunate writers whose work generates a small commotion when first published but for some inexplicable reason is forgotten while lesser writers achieve recognition and a large following. A successful magazine writer, Cameron published seven criminous novels; the last four of these constitute some of the most quietly compelling suspense fiction of the 1950s.
The protagonist of The Fire Trap is Deputy Sheriff Jake Brown of the northern California mountain community of Verdi, who is also featured in Cameron’s best-known novel, Catch a Tiger (1952). Jake’s job here is a grim and ugly one: to find out who is responsible for a series of arson fires, the latest of which claimed the lives of two young children.
Matters turn even deadlier when an outsider, insurance-claims adjuster Hal Moss, is found shotgunned to death on a back country road, One of the suspects in both crimes is Jake’s own father, a surly old toner who has been estranged from Jake for fourteen long, bitter years. Other suspects include Jake’s brother, Art; one of his best friends, Floyd Rupert; and a woman with whom he was once involved, Alice Newsom.
“In his stubborn, honest, relentless way,” the dust jacket blurb says, “Jake follows his hunches and tracks down his suspicions … At every turn [he] is met by his own sense of guilt and frustration-feelings intensified when he realizes that he has unwittingly set the scene for two more murders.” It is at terrible personal cost that he eventually arrives at the truth, in a series of climaxes that can only be described as shattering.
This is provocative stuff, told in lean, understated prose that makes it all the more forceful. As is the case with Catch a Tiger and two non-series books, The Butcher’s Wife (1954) and The Silent One (1958), it is a novel that has disturbing things to say about the dark side of human relationships.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
Bibliographic Note: A partial list of Owen Cameron’s short fiction can be found here on the Fiction Mags Index. His first recorded story was for Collier’s in 1943. Collier’s was a “slick magazine,” but Cameron can be considered a pulp writer, too, since his list of credits also includes stories published in Blue Book and Argosy.