I have to admit it, I love a good disaster movie. This probably started when I was a kid and saw The Towering Inferno, then The Poseidon Adventure, then an earthquake movie where Los Angeles is cracking up and the main characters are flying around above it. But which one is better, a movie or a book? I think we all know the answer to that. This week we have Inferno on Fifth, a book that beautifully takes us back in time to a New York hotel in 1899 where someone flicks a spark from a cigar to a lace curtain.
About the Book
St. Patrick’s Day, New York City, 1899. Spectators along Fifth Avenue, unaware of impending doom, enjoy the parade and the bands playing Irish tunes. Suddenly marchers halt at the immense and luxurious Windsor Hotel, watching terrified women at upper-floor windows cringe at the flames—and then leap. Within two hours, the fire kills close to one hundred people.
What set it off? An ember from a cigar? Robbers who sparked the fire as a distraction? Broken boilers in the basement?
Spunky hotel guest Marguerite Wells decides she and her two wealthy friends can discover what started the terrible inferno while three newly jobless hotel maids struggle to figure out how they can survive.
Inspired by the true story of the shocking fire that leveled one of Manhattan’s elegant hotels twelve years before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Inferno on Fifth prompts readers to ask how they would react in the defining seconds of an irreversible tragedy.
When New York City Patrolman James Duane requested St. Patrick’s Day parade duty, his sergeant, bless the man, had agreed, making up for the lousy assignments of previous weeks. Duane’s parents had immigrated from Ireland, along with a quarter of the city’s residents. Thousands of them planned to march in the parade up Fifth Avenue or gather there to see the sights. Duane would guard them—light duty—while he joined the fun. He smiled at his good fortune. Patrolman Duane woke up to a perfect day—chilly and breezy but manageable thanks to the bright sun. He arrived early at the staging ground, the Worth Monument at 24th and Broadway, where a granite obelisk honored a forgotten general. As Duane scanned the crowd, thousands of marchers, their clothes dappled with green ribbons blowing in the wind, cheerfully took their place in line. No need for Duane and his fellow patrolmen to do anything more than stand around, looking manful, steadfast. His wooden nightstick hung down from his belt and he could feel the .32 caliber Colt revolver in his holster, all part of daily dress. But he wouldn’t need weapons today. The marchers and bystanders looked peaceful. They would enjoy the company, the pageantry, and later the drink and festivities. When the parade ended, they would dance and party. Out of habit Duane moved his head in all directions, taking in the crowd. He watched marchers hunt for their assigned places and listened as bands warmed up. The parade’s grand marshal, decked out with a green sash and green badge, checked his notebook, shouted directions. Musicians of the First Regiment of Irish Volunteers took their place of honor at the front. Next a platoon of mounted police steadied their horses. Then the lower order parade marshals, also mounted, found their places. Behind them, invited guests lined up their seventy-five carriages. After the carriages, the groups assigned to the middle fell into position. The Hibernian Rifles of Westchester and Queens Counties. The Men’s Associations of County Cork, County Galway, County Leitrim. Regiments of Irish Volunteers. A float with four girls representing still more counties of Ireland. Thirty-five divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, each with a band, each band with bagpipers. Behind this middle throng still more societies and clubs formed ranks at the back of the parade. “I’m cold. Need to get moving,” one of the shivering band leaders said. His bagpiper pulled out a pocket watch. “2:30. Any minute now.” As though they heard the complaint, the marshals shouted “start.” The order rolled down, from group to group. Duane took his pre-arranged position near the middle. Moving north on Fifth, marchers covered two dozen blocks with an easy stride. Bystanders, roused by the bands’ reels, jigged in place. The marchers passed office buildings, store fronts, newsboys sporting green fabric shamrocks on their caps, food-cart peddlers. Duane scanned the crowd, seeing cheery faces. He saw the clock on the corner of 42nd and Fifth hit 3:00. Marchers were keeping their expected pace. With his new blue uniform, adorned with two rows of brass buttons, and his new helmet with a high rounded dome, Duane knew he looked good, maybe even handsome. He slowed his pace to walk alongside the pretty girl on the float who represented County Mayo. She had pinned a green ribbon to her hat, which she held onto with her left hand, and another ribbon on her coat. “Are you cold, miss?” Silly. She had tilted her chin up and he wanted to get her attention. Did she hear? She turned to look at him, but with a question, not the inviting look he sought. “Up there, what’s that?” the girl asked. James Duane’s glance followed her right arm, then her wool glove, which rose toward the building at the curb. Within a second or two, the girls on floats representing Counties Cork and Galway all pointed up and to the right. The image of girls’ gloved hands rising would stick in his mind, years later. The crowd slowed, then halted on Fifth near 46th. Still looking up, Patrolman Duane bumped into the patrolman ahead of him, who bumped into the patrolman ahead of him. The festive sounds Duane heard a minute earlier stopped, replaced by horses snorting, carriages screeching, marchers shouting, whistles blowing. Then worse noises—shrieks, yowls. His eyes smarted. The girls on the floats no longer pointed inexactly with flexed, gloved fingers, to flames and to smoke. They strained their arms, stretched their fingers toward women in high windows, women of all ages. Duane couldn’t hear the shrieking women, only the bystanders. “There, there. Near the corner.” “The older one on the sill. Fifth floor.” “The one in brown. Don’t let her jump.” Duane could barely see the features on the faces of the women in the windows, but he could imagine their expressions of horror. Later Duane read that the musicians and marchers farther back sulked when the front and middle of the parade halted, for no apparent reason. The trailing contingent detoured east on 42nd Street then north on Park, until meeting up with the delayed front of the parade at 126th Street for the promised dinner and dancing. Waiting for the festivities, the marchers from the back heard what they had missed from the eyewitnesses in the lead. “And the women, you should have seen the wretched creatures, they were jumping to the pavement.” “The posh ones?” “The posh in their silks and the servants too. They all died.” “Didn’t know it was a hotel, at first. Just thought it was an office building. But then I saw the women and heard it was the Windsor Hotel. Not fit for a king or queen no more.”
Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction, after a career on the other side of the desk in publishing. In addition to Path of Peril, she is the author of The Murderess Must Die (2021) and the forthcoming Inferno on Fifth (2023). Marlie lives with her husband in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Triangle Chapter of Sisters in Crime.