First, I have to say that I’ve always wanted to read this book. I’ve heard nothing but great things about this book and this author- Don Winslow. I know it’s not true but I feel like I’m the last person to discover how great he is. California Fire and Life won the Shamus Award in 2000 for Best P.I. Novel which is why I bought it at that time. In paper. No digital copy as I write this (for shame). Two days ago, I read a few pages and was immediately hooked. This is one of those novels written by someone whose subject happens to be something he’s an expert on and that’s being a fire investigator. The protagonist, Jack Wade is two things: a surfer and a fire investigator. He speaks the language of fire fluently.
Fire has a language.
It’s small wonder, Jack thinks, that they refer to “tongues of flame,” because fire will talk to you. It will talk to you while it’s burning — color of flame, color of smoke, rate of spread, the sounds it makes while it burns different substances –and it will leave written account of itself after it’s burned out.
The novel begins with…a house fire. The victim is a woman who is home alone. She was supposedly smoking a cigarette and drinking vodka and (accidentally) burns herself up in her bedroom. Her dog survived the fatal house fire. Since they weren’t with her, her estranged husband and their two children did too. Yes, there is background info about the marriage – it was a troubled one – and the estranged husband does act kind of weird. He’s a Russian real estate developer with a history of adultery. He tells the kids who in turn tell Jack that “mommy burned up.” Okay. There’s a lot of unsaid/said accusations towards the husband. Whispers of a possible murder.
It’s Jack’s job to decide if the fire was arson or not. The claims amount to over a million. After speaking with a couple of people – the husband of the victim especially – Jack searches for clues to dispute the police report saying that the fire was “accidental.” He finds it. The rest of the book kind of goes from there – going into detail about the victim and her life and her troubled marriage while introducing some other colorful players. And those things kind of didn’t interest me much.
I’m just gonna come out and say that the first half of this book was awesome. It was like hypnotic because I couldn’t stop reading. I see why so many people loved this book but this is not – overall a great story to me. I found some of Jack’s actions kind of out sync with his character. Some of the situations/scenes kind of out there (for lack of a better word).
Bottom line is that this book has a great beginning and a lackluster second half. A great start is good but that’s not enough to save this book. If you want to know learn about fire and fire investigation techniques – this is your book, right here. A lot of people remark about the first half of this book because it is very interesting. This is insider stuff, a bit dated but this is great info. You see what they see when they enter the home, what they look for and how they think. While this story started off great, it didn’t stay that way long. Despite my criticisms, I am a fan. I love the author’s voice and will be searching for a
better another book by him. C+.