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California Fire and Life    by Don Winslow order for
California Fire and Life
by Don Winslow
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2007 (1999)

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* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

We have all read books that are hard to put down. Sure, we have. California Fire and Life, though, is impossible to put down. Once the first page is read, you're hooked. Jack Wade is an insurance claims investigator after being drummed out of the Orange County Sheriff's Department arson unit for behavior unbecoming of an officer of the law, i.e. beating up a suspect.

With his encyclopedic knowledge of arson, Jack's a sure hit with an insurance company that is tired of paying huge claims for what is in reality arson and thus insurance fraud. Don Winslow describes in detail the causes of fires, how they can be set, and scientific methods of detection. Utterly fascinating. When Nicky Vale's house and wife are burned to a crisp, Jack suspects arson. His findings support this. California Fire and Life Insurance Company want to pay Vale's claim. Jack says no. From there is born a plot that is intricate, finely tuned, suspenseful and downright scary in parts.

Winslow is a story teller par excellence. His The Winter of Frankie Machine is being made into a movie starring Robert De Niro. As I read California Fire and Life, I kept thinking how this scene or that scene would play wonderfully on the big screen. There's lots of pathos, compassion, two little kids and their feisty little dog always good for a tear or two in the darkness of a theater - and the heart-stopping times when violence enters the picture.

Add conspiracy, vice, murder, and some very weird characters and you have a book that won't be forgotten quickly. The manipulations of the police, insurance company higher-ups, and the underworld make one hope this book comes only from the fantasies of an author's overworked imagination and not true life.

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