Streets of Fire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the summer of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a series of demonstrations designed to desegregate Birmingham. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers resolved to fill the jails of the city until their goals were achieved, but the city government and its white supporters were equally determined to resist--with violence if need be. In such circumstances, the murder of a twelve-year-old deaf black girl would have proved explosive. No such murder occurred at the time, but Thomas H. Cook does a marvelous job of grafting a fictional situation onto existing historical reality.

Detective Ben Wellman is an ordinary man in most respects. A lifelong native of Birmingham, Wellman returned home after his military service and joined the police department. In the normal course of events he would spend several decades on the job and retire on his pension with little to show that he had lived or worked--beyond a pile of dusty file folders in forgotten archives. In 1963, however, Ben Wellman finds his comfortable world challenged as never before. Wellman has never thought of himself as a racist--indeed, he has lived largely immune from the trappings of overt race prejudice. When he is ordered to investigate the motiveless murder and rape of a black child, he finds that he can no longer remain aloof from the problem.

Wellman discovers, in fact, that the race of the victim is of little consequence to him. Despite the disapproval of his colleagues and the reluctance of Birmingham’s black community, he vows to pursue the chain of evidence to its logical conclusion regardless of the consequences to himself or his career.

STREETS OF FIRE is, in many respects, a conventional police procedural; Cook takes the reader through the sometimes tedious details of a homicide investigation in a thoroughly convincing manner. At the same time, however, the novel examines the impact of the civil rights struggle on the sensibilities of an ordinary white Southerner and his gradual awareness that his world must change.