Inferno on Fifth

Written by Marlie Parker Wasserman
Review by Fiona Alison

This fin-de-siècle mystery centers on the Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York City, which burned to the ground on March 17, 1899. The hotel housed many of America’s wealthy, so the fire was extensively covered by media, but names of the understaff are mostly unknown.

Wasserman has fashioned a remarkable story, using the three women who did, in fact, investigate the fire: Marguerite Wells, daughter of Dakota banker Edward Wells; Theodate Pope, daughter of industrialist and art collector Alfred Pope; and Angelica Gerry, daughter of reformer Eldridge Gerry. It is notable that all three women are distinguished historical figures in their own right. Every historical figure from Fire Chief to Buildings Commissioner to Chief of Detectives, who could be included, is packed into this complex story with precision.

There is no way to adequately sum this up other than to say that the before, during and aftermath of the inferno are described in a gripping account that I found impossible to put down. Theories ranged from someone flicking their cigar at a lace curtain, to small fires being set to conceal a robbery, to a poor water supply, to a lack of fire doors, to ladies’ maids leaving plugged-in electric irons on wooden boards. Such facts as Alfred Pope redirecting a fireman to retrieve his paintings, while women jumped to their death, remain undisputed on the historical record. Characters spring to life in the bustling 19th-century city setting of St. Patrick’s Day, backstories are fascinating, and the mystery of a robbery is well thought out. Motivation, guilt, blame, theory―all are packed into a taut plot.

I can’t praise this work highly enough for its attention to detail, unbiased retelling, and the author’s narrative ability to make it all so relatable and so compelling. Simply marvelous!