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During the 1970s there was a huge rise in the popularity of the disaster movie. Films like The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake were able to draw a host of big name stars to kill off one by one. Perhaps the most famous of these movies was The Towering Inferno that brought together two of the most notable leading men of all time in Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Famously this was a turbulent shoot as both men struggled to get their names first on the posters and even had McQueen demanding the same number of lines (thats why he says a lot of gibberish in the film). The reason that having two leads was possible came about because the film took parts from two separate books. Both The Tower and the The Glass Inferno tackled the same story of a skyscraper fire and by combining them Hollywood was able to offer both actors a meaty role. Having read The Tower a number of years ago I could see some of the elements of the film, but the book lacked action could The Glass Inferno make up for this?
The story follows a day in the life of a glass skyscraper that is slowly engulfed in flames. We are introduced to a wide variety of characters who must find a way to escape the building before they are killed by flames or smoke. Can the maverick fire-fighter work miracles to prevent the entire building from being destroyed or will the poor workmanship cause the disaster to be far worse than anyone could have imagined?
I actually found this book to be surprisingly compelling but also surprisingly dated. Having read The Tower I was ready for more average action tat. However, The Glass Inferno avoids this tag by introducing us to the story, characters and action at a much better pace. Scortia and his co writer have written this book so that the real fire does not start until about half way. The first part of the book is spent increasing the tension and introducing us to characters that may be in peril later. This is a very effective technique as when the fire does come the reader has an investment in what is going on.
The set pieces that see some of the characters escape the disaster, whilst others perish, are very well written. The book does not shy away from the bleak fate that fire can have for a person as they suffocate, burn to death or fall out of windows. The fact that Scortia does not overload the reader with these scenes means that they pack a punch when they appear. The story is great fun and if almost reads like an episode of Quincy as the characters all shout each other about the dangers of building a substandard skyscraper. It is obviously an issue close to Scortias heart as the book shows his opinion of these metal leviathans.
The book was written in the early 70s and is definitely of the period. Skyscrapers have existed in our society for years now and apart from the rare situation they are seen as safe. However, for the man on the street in 1974 they represented danger and the final death of innocence that America clings on to. They represent a future of capitalism were farms and the countryside are no longer needed. I felt that this tight jeaned, afro wearing, keep the innocence feel to the book added a huge amount to its charm as you can picture the disaster movies hay day. However, it also leads to several issues as society has moved on since this book was written. The attitude towards black people and gay people in the book is that 1970s liberal which was open-minded back then but is awful now. Also the female characters in the book are outrageous as they discuss sticking by their men and not minding if they cheat. I was able to read these parts and realise they were of an era, but if they offend you they could ruin the book.
Another issue with the book is the simplicity of the characters throughout. I liked reading about the people but it was signposted who would live and who would die. Young child? Deaf family? Congratulations you get to live. Having an affair? Stealing money? Drunk? I am afraid that you will have to die!! I actually thought this was fun as it does fit in with the disaster genre, but for some it may grate.
On a more serious note this book did bring thoughts of September 11th even though it was written 30 years earlier. The despair of some of the characters who are trapped at the top of the tower forces them to jump for their lives. This reminded me of the images of that day and although it did not ruin my enjoyment of the book it may prove an issue for some people.
The Glass Inferno is unlike most books that I have read and for that I really enjoyed it. The story itself is well told with a strong build-up and a great conclusion. I do have a problem with the slightly dated feel to the book and in particular the chauvinistic angle the book takes, but I realised that this was the attitude of some American authors during the era. This book is very much of its time and represent a very enjoyable action adventure, especially for any fans of disaster movies.
4 out of 5
Price This book is currently out of print but a second hand copy can be bought on amazon uk for 1p plus p&p.