Emerson, Earl 1948–

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Emerson, Earl 1948–

(Earl W. Emerson)


Born July 8, 1948, in Tacoma, WA; son of Ralph W. and June Emerson; married Sandra (Sandy) Evans, April 25, 1968; children: Sara, Brian, Jeffrey. Education: Attended Principia College, 1966-67, and University of Washington, Seattle, 1967-68.


Home—North Bend, WA. Agent—Dominick Abel, Dominick Abel Literary Agency Inc., 146 W. 82nd St., Ste. 1B, New York, NY 10024. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, novelist, and firefighter. Seattle Fire Department, Seattle, WA, lieutenant, 1978—.


Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America.


Shamus Award, Private Eye Writers of America, 1985, for Poverty Bay; Edgar Award nomination



The Rainy City, Avon (New York, NY), 1985.

Poverty Bay, Avon (New York, NY), 1985.

Nervous Laughter, Avon (New York, NY), 1986.

Fat Tuesday, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

Deviant Behavior, Morrow (New York, NY), 1988.

Yellow Dog Party, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.

The Portland Laugher, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1994.

The Vanishing Smile, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1995.

The Million-Dollar Tattoo, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1996.

Deception Pass, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1997.

Catfish Café, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1998.


Black Hearts and Slow Dancing, Morrow (New York, NY), 1988.

Help Wanted: Orphans Preferred, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.

Morons and Madmen, Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.

Going Crazy in Public, Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.

The Dead Horse Paint Company, Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.


Vertical Burn, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2002.

Into the Inferno, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2003.

Pyro, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2004.

The Smoke Room, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2005.

Firetrap, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2006.

Also author of novel, Fill the World With Phantoms, 1979.


Earl Emerson has brought the crime novel into the Pacific Northwest with his books set in or near Seattle, Washington. He has created two distinctive series heroes: Thomas Black, a hard-core private detective with a strong sense of justice and morals; and Mac Fontana, a small town fire chief with more than his share of extraordinary conflagrations to fight. In his St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers essay on Emerson, John M. Muste noted that in all of Emerson's work, his prose "is clean and his narratives always move with considerable momentum. His plots are complicated, sometimes perhaps overly so, but the resolutions are clear." Muste added: "As a body of work, Emerson's novels provide an interesting setting, some relaxed humor, and a different perspective for plots that are not always entirely fresh."

Emerson's first protagonist, Thomas Black, has appeared in almost a dozen titles. Early Black stories emphasize his toughness and independence as an expoliceman solving crimes not for financial profit but for the satisfaction of helping to right wrongs. Through the series, Black is joined in his crime-fighting efforts by an attorney named Kathy Birchfield, for whom he develops an attraction that deepens over time. From a platonic but sexually tinged relationship through the early books, Black and Birchfield move into romance and marriage, often facing dangerous situations together. "A typical Black case," wrote Muste, "begins with Kathy Birchfield coming to him with fears about the fate of a friend, or bringing him a client. The novels all contain high levels of violence, and Black himself, although adept at the martial arts, comes in for beatings; like many fictional detectives, he sometimes loses the first fight but he never loses the last one."

Emerson's works have received positive reviews. The Portland Laugher, for example, was cited in Publishers Weekly for its "superbly worked-out plot, a narrator with a likable voice, and Emerson's clean, witty prose." Another Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the way the detective's personal relationships "show a vulnerable side of the tough, resourceful Black." The same reviewer noted the novels' "gritty panache."

In Catfish Café some critics noted that Emerson departs somewhat from witty repartee to take on a more serious tone about family relationships. Catfish Café is about Black's investigation into a murder that might have been committed by the daughter of his one-time partner, Luther Little. Gradually, after sorting all the complicated relationships in Little's African-American family, Black surmises that the murder was the end result of an incident that occurred long ago at the café of the title. "Part social study, part whodunnit, the elegantly written Catfish Café does well by both," wrote Dick Lochte in the Los Angeles Times. A Publishers Weekly critic similarly noted that the murder mystery itself is not the most compelling part of the novel, which "will likely leave readers more interested in the mysteries and variety of human behavior than in explications."

Since 1978, Emerson has been employed as a professional firefighter in Seattle. This career led to the development of his second hero, Mac Fontana. Fontana heads a small fire department in a town near Seattle. Sometimes he must also moonlight as the town's sheriff, and he does so with great determination. From his debut appearance in Black Hearts and Slow Dancing, Fontana has proven a hit with the critics. A Publishers Weekly correspondent described him as "a no-nonsense and likable guy" whose actions show "that fire departments aren't just a bunch of guys and a couple of Dalmatians hanging out at the station." Another Publishers Weekly reviewer called The Dead Horse Paint Company, Fontana's fifth mystery, "deftly constructed [and] compelling." The reviewer continued: "Fontana … sifts through the rubble of broken lives to find a killer as Emerson constructs a brooding, engaging tale of personal and professional conflict."

Since character Fontana and author Emerson are both firefighters, some of the most vivid scenes in the Fontana books are, not surprisingly, of firefighters bravely performing their jobs. This is also the case in Emerson's standalone novels, such as Vertical Burn, according to a number of reviewers. In the opening scene, firefighter John Finney is caught in a blaze set off by arsonists that causes a wall to fall and kill his partner. Although Finney is not formally charged with wrongdoing, his peers suspect that he panicked during the incident and that this led to the man's death. Finney then sets out to prove his innocence and find out how the fire was started. Praising the fire scenes in the book, Los Angeles Times contributor Lochte felt that Emerson's descriptions were so convincing that "readers may wind up struggling to breathe," adding that the "roaring fires [are] so stunningly depicted that you can feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke." Although Michael Prager in the Houston Chronicle felt the story is marred by "implausibility," Booklist contributor Dennis Dodge called it a "thriller that delivers on thrills."

Emerson has also produced a number of other stand-alone mystery novels combining firefighting themes with sleuthing and detection. Into the Inferno brings firefighter Jim Swope and his colleagues to the scene of a truck collision on the highway. There, he meets trucker Holly Riggs, who becomes his friend and lover, and finally his ex-girlfriend and stalker. Six months later, the firefighters who responded to the accident are beginning to die from strange and horrible symptoms. Holly's sister Stephanie finds her in a coma. When Swope himself begins to show symptoms of the disease that his killed his fellow firefighters, he realizes that they were exposed to a virulent disease-causing agent at the accident scene, and that he has only a week to figure out what his affliction consists of and whether or not there is an antidote. As time ticks away, Swope and Stephanie Riggs join forces to try to find out what happened and what they are facing, and how a culture of corporate corruption impedes their progress even as Swope's condition worsens and his changes of survival become slimmer. Booklist reviewer David Pitt called the novel "a thoroughly captivating twist on an old theme." Orlando Sentinel reviewer Ann Hellmuth named Emerson "a deft writer who cleverly exploits the tension and the horror of Swope's situation." He concentrates on "character development and suspense in a cinematic tour de force that finishes with a jolting twist," commented Library Journal reviewer Roland Person.

Paul Wolff, the protagonist of Pyro, is a hard-driven Seattle firefighter known for daring acts of heroism. Below this steel-hard demeanor, however, Wolff is haunted by guilt and deeply troubled by his past. He is the son of another firefighter who was killed in an arson blaze when Paul was four years old. The death led to the breakdown of Wolff's home life, as his mother descended into alcoholism and depression and took up with an abusive man who would eventually kill her. His last family member is taken from him when his thirteen-year-old brother Neil is sent to prison for killing the man who murdered their mother. Long nursing a hatred for the arsonist responsible for his father's death, he attacks his profession with gung-ho enthusiasm and perfectionism that protects him from being affected by fire-station politics. When a series of fires begins to exhibit a familiar pattern, Wolff suspects that they are being set by the arsonist who killed his father. As the novel progresses, Wolff and the arsonist steadily zero in on each other until an explosive confrontation is inevitable. "Everything works in this engrossing story of a good man's redemptive struggle to believe in his own worth," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor. With this novel, "Emerson has another four-alarm winner," stated Person in another Library Journal review. Booklist reviewer David Wright noted that the novel "should appeal to a wide swath of suspense fans."

The Smoke Room combines absurd humor with the grim realities of firefighting. The novel opens with protagonist and narrator Jason Gum, a conscientious and dedicated firefighter on the fast-track to advancement, working to remedy the aftermath of a pig's 11,000-foot fall from an airplane into the upscale Seattle home of Iola Pederson. As Jason learns the hard way about his new occupation of firefighting, he undertakes a steamy affair with Iola, twenty years older than him. His dalliance leads to a dereliction of duty, and when a pair of mean-spirited colleagues decide not to report him, Jason finds himself under their highly unpleasant control. Meanwhile, Jason's firefighting partner has succumbed to temptation and stolen twelve million dollars in bearer bonds from a fire scene, hiding them in Iola's garage. Unrepentant greed and murder follow the bonds as the novel unfolds, with Jason caught in the middle, wondering how he will extricate himself from a difficult, dangerous situation. "Emerson's compelling latest defies easy categorization," remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor, who named the book a "consistently entertaining and always surprising yarn." Booklist critic David Wright called the story "laid-back and likable noir lite." In this novel, Emerson, "always reliable, surpasses everything he's done before with this sometimes painfully funny, occasionally poignant suspenser that adheres to its genre roots while achieving considerably more," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic.

In Firetrap, Seattle-based firefighter and reporter Trey Brown draws the assignment of investigating the burning of a local social club. Trey's investigation uncovers dangerous information as the trail from the burned-out club snakes along a path of conspiracy and corruption directly to the mayor's office. In the background, Trey must deal with accusations that African-American customers were abandoned to die by the Seattle Fire Department. A black man himself, Trey is keenly interested in the accusations but as a member of the fire department knows they are not true. Still, racial tensions are running high in the city. Meanwhile, Trey considers his the past troubles that have led to his estrangement from his family while navigating nascent romantic interest between him and local television journalist Jamie Estevez, who is also investigating the suspicious blaze and the city's response to it. "This is one stand-alone novel that deserves a sequel," declared David Pitt in another Booklist review.



St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Booklist, June 1, 1998, Dennis Dodge, review of Catfish Café, p. 1731; April 1, 2002, Dennis Dodge, review of Vertical Burn, p. 1309; December 1, 2002, David Pitt, review of Into the Inferno, p. 644; May 1, 2004, David Wright, review of Pyro, p. 1504; May 1, 2005, David Wright, review of The Smoke Room, p. 1522; April 1, 2006, David Pitt, review of Firetrap, p. 24.

Houston Chronicle, June 30, 2002, Michael Prager, "Smoke Eater's Serenade: Firefighting Author Writes from Experience," p. 35.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1998, review of Catfish Café, p. 846; December 1, 2002, review of Into the Inferno, p. 1735; July 1, 2004, review of Pyro, p. 606; April 1, 2005, review of The Smoke Room, p. 372.

Library Journal, March 15, 2002, Roland Person, review of Vertical Burn, p. 108; December, 2002, Roland Person, review of Into the Inferno, p. 177; June 1, 2004, Roland Person, review of Pyro, p. 120.

Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1998, Dick Lochte, "Mysteries," p. 5; June 5, 2002, Dick Lochte, "Mysteries: Sleuth Goes to Blazes to Nab Arsonists," p. E2.

Orlando Sentinel, April 21, 2003, Ann Hellmuth, review of Into the Inferno.

Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1993, review of Morons and Madmen, p. 60; August 8, 1994, review of The Portland Laughter, p. 390; September 4, 1995, review of The Vanishing Smile, p. 52; April 29, 1996, review of Going Crazy in Public, p. 54; August 12, 1996, review of The Million-Dollar Tattoo, p. 67; May 12, 1997, review of The Dead Horse Paint Company, p. 61; September 1, 1997, review of Deception Pass, p. 100; June 1, 1998, review of Catfish Café, p. 48A; May 6, 2002, review of Vertical Burn, p. 34; December 2, 2002, review of Into the Inferno, p. 31; July 5, 2004, review of Pyro, p. 36; March 21, 2005, review of The Smoke Room, p. 36; February 27, 2006, review of Firetrap, p. 35.


Earl Emerson Home Page,http://www.earlemerson.com/ (February 6, 2007).

Fantastic Fiction,http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/ (February 6, 2007), bibliography of Earl Emerson.

Readers Room,http://www.readersroom.com/ (February 6, 2007), Rob Holden, interview with Earl Emerson.

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