In Don Winslow's second mystery, California Fire and Life, police officer Jack Wade takes the stand to testify at the trial of a man accused of arson and murder. But dramatic surprise testimony by his nemesis a fellow cop reveals that Wade has perjured himself and in fact beat a confession out of the accused.
This gripping scene would play out at the climax of many a murder mystery, but instead serves as the backstory of Winslow's novel with a twist. Wade, now an insurance investigator after being drummed out of the force for his perjury, is the hero of the book. He wrung the confession from the obviously guilty mob-connected arsonist to protect an eyewitness. Wade's post-trial career as an insurance adjuster has him scratching the ashes of fires that consume property, memories, and sometimes lives. The remnants left by years of fires, coupled with the embers of his disgrace, have burned out most of Wade's idealism, leaving smoldering disillusion quenched only by early-morning sessions with his vintage surfboard. One morning he finds himself at the charred ruins of a posh coastal mansion in which a beautiful woman lies dead. Wade believes from the start that the owner, wealthy Nicky Vale, set the fire that claimed the life of his estranged wife. However, Wade's nemesis from his trial declares the fire accidental.
Wade's instincts, and the encouragement of his boss (whose motto is " We don't pay people to burn their homes down"), compel him to try to assemble evidence of Vale's guilt, incidentally saving his company the hefty insurance claim. The path of Wade's investigation takes him to a chief suspect who hides a tangle of deception even from those who believe they know his secrets. The reader soon learns whether Vale set the fire, but further surprises are yet in store. A veteran arson investigator himself, Winslow lets his 15 years of experience speak through Wade, from the detective's joyful discovery of his vocation at fire school, to his years of bitterness as he inspects fires deliberately set. The insatiable hunger of fire as well as that of criminals, developers, insurance executives, lawyers, cops, old flames, and other vivid supporting characters is matched by the reader's hunger to consume the story of California Fire and Life.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis.