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Nothing Burns in Hell
Philip José Farmer
Tor Books, 228 pages

Philip José Farmer
Philip José Farmer
Philip José Farmer was born in 1918 in North Terre Haute, Indiana. He attended Bradley University, receiving a BA in English in 1950. His novella The Lovers, published in Startling Stories, won a Hugo Award in 1953. He won another in 1968 for the story "Riders of the Purple Wage" which was written for the Dangerous Visions series and a third in 1972 for the first novel of the Riverworld series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Farmer has written also under a number of pseudonyms, the best known being Kilgore Trout.

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Philip José Farmer Tribute Page
Philip José Farmer Tribute Page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

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When I saw that Philip José Farmer had a new book out, Nothing Burns in Hell, I wondered what it was about. Was it a new Riverworld novel? Another book in the World of Tiers series? Or perhaps the start of a new series. To my amazement, I saw that it was none of those. In fact, not even close.

Nothing Burns in Hell starts out as a pulp detective novel and ends as a pulp detective novel. And in case you're wondering, everything in between is pulp detective novel -- and it's all a fantastic read.

The story begins with an introduction to our detective, Thomas Gresham Corbie, a financially strapped private investigator. Very early on, we are given an indication of how he operates. Faced with some noisy neighbours and an unhelpful landlord, Corbie decides to take matters into his own hands. He sends a "care" package to his absentee landlord, and sabotages his neighbours' stereo by cutting off the prongs on the electrical plug and gluing the plug back into the socket. His struggles with the neighbours continue throughout the book and constitute an amusing subplot.

The real story begins with Corbie accepting a job to guard a mysterious woman as she makes a payoff to some blackmailers. Though Corbie usually works legitimately for Mimi Rootwell, his tough-as-nails boss, sometimes she refers clients to him for jobs that her agency will not handle. In this case, the deal is shady but Corbie needs the money. Not to pay off his bookie or a loanshark, but to pay for some rare books that he purchased. After a series of adventures and turn-arounds, Corbie ends up with the blackmail money. But he's a man of principle -- while he keeps the money, in the end he pays the taxes on it.

That job complete, he moves on to the main case. Simon Alliger, head of the richest family in Peoria, wants Mimi's firm to uncover any scandalous information they can find about Diana, their daughter-in-law. He and his wife disapprove of the match and want to find some way to convince their son to divorce her quickly.

When Corbie sets out to investigate Diana's past, what follows is a tale of blackmail, mystery, murder, and torture. To say more would give away too much. But I will say that everything ties together and the mysterious woman from the beginning turns up again.

Nothing Burns in Hell is a detective novel, not as hard-boiled as Robert Parker's Spencer novels or Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer books, but certainly along those lines. Thomas Corbie is a bit more complex than your average PI. As his boss, Mimi, puts it:

"You know, Tom, your character, such as it is, is inconsistent. You're usually so tidy and orderly, almost prissy. Yet, you're very flexible in the way you operate. You contradict yourself..."
He'll take money illegally and then worry about paying the taxes on it. He's a likable guy, easy to talk to, who prefers to approach things cautiously from the side rather than straight-on. Yet he's also a thorough detective who knows his business. Tall and rugged, he carries a gun and isn't afraid to use it. But he's also a collector of rare books and he sometimes uses literary references when he needs to make up the names of people or places.

Via Corbie, Farmer throws in interesting tidbits here and there throughout the book -- a discussion about God and religion in one place, Indian legends in another, and trivia about Peoria and Illinois. Perhaps the biggest bit of trivia is the title itself. What does the title, "Nothing Burns in Hell", mean? It's taken from the Theologia Germanica:

"Be assured, he who helpeth a man to his own will, helpeth him to the worst that he can.

For the more a man followeth after his own self-will, and self-will groweth in him, the farther off is he from God, the true Good, for nothing burneth in hell but self-will."

People are their own worst enemy. And this is certainly seen in many of the characters in this book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The action keeps the book moving along and Farmer keeps you guessing until the end. But if the following lines don't appeal to you, you should probably avoid this book:

"She had a face that said she was $350 per bottle of wine and a light salad, easy on the dressing. But that didn't mean a thing as far as her character and intentions went."
"This was Burt Kordik, a native of Jefferson Park, a Chicago area. Many fine people have been born there, but Kordik was not one of them."
I love lines like that and so I was delighted to see them. Farmer has certainly demonstrated, again, that he is a fine, talented writer and that genre does not matter to a gifted author. I don't know whether we'll see another Thomas Corbie novel, but if we do, I'll certainly grab a copy.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.


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