Created by Don Winslow
“As a fire investigator, Bentley makes a good fisherman.”
–not everyone’s as good as Jack…
To be honest, Don Winslow’s standalone California Fire and Life (1999), featuring JACK WADE, a disgraced cop/slacker surfer dude/hotdog insurance claims adjuster specializing in arson, 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.
Jack’s boiled his life down to exactly two things: surfing and fire. He divides his time between 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 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 former employer, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, has already decreed that 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.
It’s author 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 fifteen years, before turning to writing, and he writes with a powerful and authoritative voice.
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. Hot damn!
Don Winslow is also responsible for Neal Carey, a globe-trotting private eye who works for a rather murky New York organization, and he’s the author of such bestsellers as The Death and Life of Bobby Z, The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Dawn Patrol, Savages and The Cartel. He lives in Southern California. He’s worked as a movie theater manager and documentary film production assistant, but it’s those years as an arson investigator that help bring California Fire and Life all home. A sequel seems unlikely, but another book featuring Jack would be more than welcome. The closest we’ve come, so far, is a brief cameo by Jack in a “Paradise,” a novella in Winslow’s 2020 collection, Broken. He’s now an investigator for Hawaii Fire and Life.
- “Despite the fact that it won the Shamus, people rarely mention this title when discussing the pantheon of great private investigator novels and I think there are several reasons why. It isn’t part of a series, Jack Wade isn’t your traditional gumshoe, and the entire story revolves around an arson investigation. And yet it still contains so many elements of great P.I. novels–a flawed hero, lost love, wasted opportunities. Add in Winslow’s ability to put words together in a unique and lyrical fashion and a story that just rips along, and you have a book that should start any discussion of great P.I. novels. It is just a hauntingly beautiful work.”
— Jeff Shelby, as part of The Rap Sheet’s “One Book Project”
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. This entry was adapted from the review first published in the literary web zine January.