Book: California Fire and Life

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California Fire and Life

Author: Donna Winslow
Publisher: Ballantine Books

An insurance claims investigator, Jack Wade speaks the language of fire. He can walk into charred remains and know where the flames ignited and why. Now Jack is investigating a claim he knows isn’t just fraudulent, it’s murder.

The house was a multi million-dollar beauty looking out over the Pacific. The woman died in her bedroom, her alcohol-soaked blood baked on to a $350,000 canopied bed. It’s a case Jack could turn away from but won’t—because old scores need to be settled. So Jack takes the plunge into a world of crime, ambition, and evil he never knew existed under the bright California sun. And for Jack, getting out again is going to mean fighting fire with fire….


Before he became a bestselling novelist with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Don Winslow spent 15 years as an arson investigator. His expert knowledge pays off in California Fire and Life, a giant fireball of a thriller about ace arson investigator Jack Wade. Want to know why thick, oily soot on glass might be a sign of arson? Or why arsonists never burn their dogs? Or what the presence of “alligator char” means? You’ll learn about this and much more, as Jack sifts through the ashes of a mansion in Orange County on behalf of the insurance company that he works for. A young wife and mother named Pamela Vale burned to death in the fire. Bentley, the sloppy and possibly corrupt sheriff’s department fire investigator, claims that it was a case of drinking too much vodka and dropping a cigarette. Jack has his doubts—especially when he meets the woman’s ex-husband, Nicky Vale, a slick Russian entrepreneur (read mafia chief) born Daziatnik Valeshin.

Before signing off on the multimillion-dollar insurance policy on Mrs. Vale’s life and house, Jack does some more digging. Meanwhile, his old girlfriend—a policewoman who just happens to be the dead woman’s half-sister—finds a link between Nicky Vale’s Russian mob and a Vietnamese gang of criminals. Jack’s insurance firm begins to act strangely, pressuring him to settle the Vale claim. There may be a little too much technical data in California Fire and Life, but Jack—who lives only to surf and investigate arson—is still a fresh and fascinating creation. —Dick Adler

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Don Winslow’s unusual résumé includes six previous novels (five of which comprise his excellent Neal Carey series, which began in 1991 with A Cool Breeze on the Underground) and 15 years as an insurance investigator specializing in cases of arson. The twin strands of Winslow’s career come together with spectacular results in his latest novel, California Fire and Life, an ambitious, compulsively readable account of arson, murder, and organized crime in the corrupt, increasingly decadent society of southern California.

Winslow’s hero is Jack Wade, a former Orange County deputy sheriff who was fired after perjuring himself to save the life of a witness in a controversial arson/murder case. Jack’s conviction cost him both his job and his relationship with fellow detective Letty Del Rio, and he has spent the intervening 12 years living a radically circumscribed life that revolves around surfing—an almost sacred activity to Jack—and his current job as claims adjuster for the California Fire and Life Insurance Company.

Jack, in his own words, “speaks fluent fire.” His ability to read the evidence left behind by even the most devastating fire—to chart its history; to evaluate its nature, point of origin, and probable cause—verges on the mystical. So, when a fire breaks out in a heavily insured Orange County mansion, destroying an entire wing of the building, killing the owner’s estranged wife, and incinerating a valuable collection of antique furniture, California Fire and Life sends in its best adjuster, Jack Wade, to determinethefire’s cause.

The first thing Jack learns is that, after a perfunctory investigation, the official representative of the Sheriff’s Department has turned in a verdict of “accidental fire, accidental death,” a ruling that puts California Fire and Life on the hook for a two-million-dollar payment. Jack’s own subsequent investigation contradicts that finding. First, he finds traces of accelerant in the charred remnants of the structure. Second, his investigation into the personal life of the beneficiary—a slick, shady Russian émigré named Nicky Vale—reveals a man who is desperately overextended, who is about to lose his home and business, and who, at the time of the “accident,” was facing an ugly, potentially ruinous divorce. Third, an eyewitness places Nicky Vale at the scene of the fire, completely contradicting Vale’s own version of events. Jack, who believes he has uncovered incontrovertible evidence of arson, denies the claim and sets out to prove that the newly widowed Nicky Vale is a murderer.

This scenario would provide more than enough plot to sustain most suspense novels. In California Fire and Life, however, it is only the beginning, the visible edge of an incredibly complex insurance scam whose roots reach back to the end of Jack’s career with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and to the grim realities of a Russian prison where Nicky Vale once spent a harrowing 18 months. Before it reaches its dramatic—and fiery—conclusion, the novel has become a case study in endemic corruption, one that encompasses a diverse cast of ruthless characters from a variety of venues: the FBI, the KGB, the California Bar Association, the Sheriff’s Department, the upper echelons of California Fire and Life, the insular world of Vietnamese youth gangs, and the equally insular—and even more violent—world of Russian organized crime.

In addition to its skillful deployment of a complex, constantly shifting story line, California Fire and Life offers something extra: an expert view of the inner workings of an arcane profession. Winslow’s years of experience as an insurance investigator lend his novel an enormous degree of authenticity. The result is a painlessly didactic work that educates as it entertains, telling us things that few of us would ever otherwise learn about the real world of insurance companies, about the prevalence—and variety—of insurance fraud, and about the endlessly fascinating subject of fire. Winslow writes with great clarity about fire—its etiology, its physical and chemical causes—without ever really demystifying the subject or minimizing our sense of its primal, Promethean power.

Winslow has come into his own with this book, which no one else could have written, or written as well. California Fire and Life is one of the high points of the summer season: an intelligent page-turner and a perfect example of that rare sort of fiction in which author and subject come together in complete alignment. —Bill Sheehan

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