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Reviews Tue Jan 11 2011

Review: Set the Night on Fire by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Most people have some ideas about the '60s in general: Vietnam, the protests, the "hippies." But what about the '60s in Chicago? What about the '60s in Chicago through the eyes of the young men and women who wanted to better the world? Libby Fischer Hellmann uses her latest thriller, Set the Night on Fire, to transport her readers to a topsy-turvy time in the city's (and country's) history, where idealism was everything. Until it wasn't.

But it wouldn't be a thriller without some mystery, of course. The book opens in "Part One: The Present" with one of the main characters, Dar Gantner, meeting with Rain - a friend? A foe? - in present-day Chicago to talk about "Alix's brother," and "Teddy," "Casey," and "Payton" - more friends? More foes? - as well as a mysterious package, the Convention of '68, and, well, death. Presumably, Dar has just gotten out of jail. And it sounds like something fishy is going on. And that's just chapter 1. Hellmann takes the reader through at least three more chapters (don't worry - they're short) where we follow Dar and Rain around and watch/listen to them do things we don't quite understand while they introduce us to more characters we don't find out much about. Typically, I'm not a fan of books that seemingly start in the middle of all the action, but Hellmann's technique really works here. The reader learns just enough to become intrigued - but not annoyed or frustrated. Actually, I found myself hurrying along to the next chapter so I could "discover" exactly what was going on.

Chapter 5 is when it all starts to come together, and we get to the meat of the novel - the tie binding all of these people. Another protagonist, Lila Hilliard, has just lost her father, Casey Hilliard, and her twin brother in an awful house fire. As Lila swifts through Casey's life, trying to square things away with his business and personal belongings, she finds a photo of him with five other people (unbeknownst to her, they are Dar, Rain, Alix, Teddy, and Payton), and she recognizes one of the women as her mother, who died when Lila and her brother were born. When Lila's curiosity is triggered, and she digs deeper, she begins to realize that her father had secrets - and, consequently, now her own life may be in danger.

"Part Two: 1968-1970" is where Hellmann delves into the Chicago '60s scene and gives the reader a taste of what it was like to be at the forefront of trying to produce change. I know nothing of Chicago in the '60s, so it was fascinating to learn about the area - both architecturally and culturally. I must admit, I was a little disappointed that I didn't really have any of those "Oh I've been there!" or "I recognize that!" moments, but as a child of the late '70s/early '80s, I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. I won't divulge much - because this book is best when read for oneself, following all of Hellmann's twists, turns, and surprises. But we get to know the six people (Casey, Dar, Rain, Alix, Teddy, and Payton) who come together for a common cause and watch them slowly drift into different directions - some more extreme than others. And by the time the reader reaches "Part Three: The Present," we know how they all end up fitting into the life of Lila Hilliard - and the danger she's in - in the present.

Set the Night on Fire is Hellmann's seventh crime fiction novel (check out her website ( for more information on Hellmann and her work). I haven't read any of the others, but if they are as engaging and suspenseful as this one, I'll be adding them to my "to read" list very soon!

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