Set the Night on Fire is a thriller about the effect of the political upheaval of the late sixties on the present. A young woman, Lila Hilliard, is pursued by unknown assassins. As she tries to find out who is doing this and why, she uncovers the history of her parents and their ties to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). A political crime—the bombing of a store that resulted in the death of three people—has come back to haunt the perpetrators, who include the man sent to prison for the crime and a presidential candidate.
The novel begins in the present and then jumps back to the time between the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the killings at Kent State in 1970. Lila learns about the events that affected her parents through the eyes of the man accused of setting the bomb, and discovers that there is more to her parents and their earlier lives than she ever imagined possible.
I found the subtext of the untold stories that float around in families an interesting one. This particular family was keeping deadly secrets but in many families children know very little of substance about their parents’ lives BC (before children). Parents never get around to talking about their past, and for the most part, children don’t care to know until it’s too late to find out.
The story itself is tersely paced and the characters are interesting, but there are too many of them. By my count, twelve are introduced in the first twenty-two pages. I was a third of the way through the book before I stopped getting them mixed up. It’s annoying to have to leaf back through the narrative to find the first appearance of a character
It is a testament to Hellman’s skill, but I also wanted to know more about the characters and what drove them. Lila, the protagonist, spends so much time running from danger that I was surprised when she reveals she is building a house with a guy whose only appearance in the book up to that point is as a minor character in her father’s office. I wanted to witness the development of that relationship, particularly since she has major trust issues. How does she move from paranoia to trust in a few months?
I felt the same way about the character of Darwin Gantner. He falls in love twice in the book. He is a radical at the opening of the story, but feels an instant connection to an apolitical girl, Alix Kerr, from a wealthy and conservative family. It is supposed to be a relationship based on more than sex alone, but that is hard to accept, particularly when he dumps her when she gets pregnant. He seems to be a decent guy so his complete rejection of Alix is puzzling and largely unexplained.
Forty years later he falls for CeCe Wainwright, who immediately and implicitly trusts him. This despite knowing that he has recently been in prison. She seems too level-headed to throw all her inhibitions to the wind, especially when he is not even a red hot lover. I needed to know more about her to accept this apparent paradox.
There were other characters, like the presidential candidate and the brother, who are one-dimensional and would benefit from some fleshing out. I realize that the thriller format makes this kind of character development tricky, but when an author is gifted at sketching characters, I want more depth to them.
I also have a quibble with the use of an unusual motorcycle, the BMW H2 Enduro, as the vehicle of choice for one of the bad guys. It seems to me that he would use something imminently forgettable in order to blend into the landscape, lulling the fears of the pursued and flummoxing potential eyewitnesses. As it is, every time there is the sound of a motorcycle engine, you know DANGER approaches.
Nevertheless, Hellman skillfully evokes an era of political and social upheaval that left nearly everyone feeling paranoid or afraid. But accompanying that was also a mood of exhilaration and hope that a new social order would evolve to redress the damage done by racism, sexism and materialism. As I closed the book, I thought about the changes in American society in the last forty years. We remain paranoid and afraid, beset by a paralyzing cynicism that sneers at idealism and social activism. Maybe it is time for another student revolution.