California Fire and Life

by Don Winslow

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

352 pages, 1999

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Burn, Baby, Burn!

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


Don Winslow's hotter-than-July new thriller, California Fire and Life, just blew me away. It's a dizzying, circular ride that begins and ends in a set of powerful vignettes that let you in on the secrets of fire and life in the state of mind that dares to call itself California.

Sandwiched in between is the tale of Jack Wade, a disgraced cop/slacker surfer dude/hotdog insurance claims adjuster who's boiled his life down to exactly two things: surfing and fire.

Twelve years ago, a lifetime, really, Jack was a young, ambitious, rookie police officer, the rising star of the Fire Inspector's Unit of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. He lived and breathed fire, gaining a solid rep as one of the best arson investigators around. And then, while looking into a carpet warehouse blaze that left a night watchman dead, Jack committed the cardinal sin of police work: he took it personally. He let his anger get the better of him, and he lost it when the obviously guilty perpetrator looked like he was about to slip through the fingers of justice, unscathed. Brought up on criminal charges of falsifying evidence, perjury, and intimidating a witness, Jack was hung out to dry by his inept and possibly corrupt superior, Brian ("Accidentally") Bentley. The incident cost Jack his career, his reputation, and the love of his life. He ultimately pled out to lesser charges, but for Jack, it was all over. After all, there just aren't too many career opportunities that come knocking for a former cop convicted of perjury and suspected of worse. Crawling into a bottle seemed to be a reasonable career alternative.

"Goddamn" Billy Hayes, the cheerfully profane head of the claims department for the California Fire and Life Insurance Company, didn't see it that way, though. He figured all of Jack's experience and training shouldn't go to waste, and that he'd be a hell of an asset to his company. So he took a chance -- a big chance -- and hired Jack to do what he does best: investigate arson.

So now, 12 years later, Jack ekes out his time surfing and adjusting claims for California Fire and Life, and he doesn't get involved. He's not getting any younger, but he's doing okay. He's conscientious and methodical. He does his job, collects his pay check, and surfs. He toes the line, he follows the rules, and he clings to integrity like it's some kind of a lifeline. And maybe it is.

But then a swanky mansion on Southern California's gold coast is gutted by a mysterious fire, leaving the corpse of Pamela Vale, a young wife and mother, behind in its ashes. Jack is called to the scene to look into the claim, only to discover that his old pal Bentley has already decided the cause of fire and death was accidental, a case of too much vodka, and a dropped cigarette. However, the more Jack sifts through the evidence, the more convinced he becomes that he's not investigating an accidental fire at all, but a planned arson, possibly intended to conceal a murder. And everything he uncovers appears to connect the arson to Pamela's estranged husband, Nicky, a slick real-estate mogul, who just can't seem to wait to collect on his claim.

It's Winslow's attention to detail, as Jack examines the evidence and works his way through the remains of the Vale house, building his case, that makes this such an utterly fascinating book, and puts it a notch above the rest of the current crop. Winslow was actually an arson investigator for 15 years, before turning to writing, and he writes with a powerful and authoritative voice. You may learn more about soot, smoke, ash, alligator char, and burned bodies than you ever wanted to know, but it's all in the service of a story you won't soon forget.

This insight into the technology of arson investigation makes California Fire and Life a techno-thriller in the very best sense of the word. It's the real deal, not just one of those big, bloated doorstops of a book that purports to let you in on the nitty gritty, but has really only pumped up a skimpy cardboard plot with page after page of irrelevant information (submarines! airplanes! pygmy mating rituals!), all intended to hide the fact that you've just paid big bucks for a glorified short story. Nope, in fewer than 350 pages, Winslow manages to set his scene, get in, get out, and nail it down in the last pages.

The plot catches quickly, and soon spreads, sparks flying from lie to lie, as Jack follows the evidence to Russian mobsters, an insurance-fraud team, renegade KGB agents, antique furniture dealers, old loves, possible incest, Vietnamese gangs, greed, and an almost stomach-churning conspiracy of corruption and betrayal.

Everyone, from the cops to some of the big shots from his own insurance company, seems to be urging Jack to sign off on the claim, but he's becoming more and more convinced that the Vale house fire was no accident. Besides, it may not be much, but Jack knows his job, and a good general rule of thumb for a claims adjuster seems to be that you don't pay someone for burning down their own house, or killing their wife.

The only real clinker in the entire book, besides a few puns so bad I wish I'd thought of them, is the too-cute-by-half reappearance of Jack's long-lost love, and her own connections to the present case -- an annoying and unnecessary coincidence that adds little to the plot. The character herself is fine; it's the reliance on a gimmicky coincidence to jam her abruptly into the story that irks me. It's a minor gripe, to be sure, but a blemish on an otherwise taut tale.

Don Winslow wrote the Neal Carey mysteries (A Cool Breeze On the Underground, The Trail to Buddha's Mirror, etc.), about a globe-trotting private eye who works for a rather murky New York organization, and he's also the author of the best-selling The Death and Life of Bobby Z (1997). He's worked as a movie theater manager and documentary film production assistant, but it is his experience as a private investigator, specializing in arson, that pays off in California Fire and Life.

Grab this one. Summer just got hotter. | July 1999


KEVIN BURTON SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television, and other media. He lives in Montreal, where's he's busy checking all the fire alarms in his house -- just in case.