Wednesday, December 7, 2011

California Fire and Life by Don Winslow

Woman's lying in bed and the bed's on fire.
She doesn't wake up.
Flame licks at her thighs like a lover and she doesn't wake up.
Just down the hill the Pacific pounds on the rocks.
California fire and life.

That's chapter 1 of California Fire and Life.

Pamela Vale is young, rich, beautiful, socially conscious, and a recovering alcoholic. Basically your prototypical California trophy wife. She’s also dead - burned to death in the west wing of her mansion. The fire investigator quickly rules it an accidental death from too much booze and a stray cigarette. Jack Wade, arson investigator for California Fire and Life, is charged with verifying the fire was an accident and authorizing a million-plus dollar payout. What he finds is an unusual char pattern, a trace of accelerants, and a husband who is more concerned with his antique furniture than his now dead wife.

Don Winslow really is one of the better writers working today and it’s a shame he’s not more well known. His characters breathe, his prose sizzles, and he certainly brings California to life. Not that he’s all style – the early chapters told me more about the nature and behavior of fire than I ever knew existed.

I also love how the book is structured. The repetition in the first three chapters are almost like a poem. And the first and last appearances of Jack Wade are perfect mirror images of each other. The plot is twisty and unpredictable. When you think you have it figured out and Winslow builds anticipation toward bringing the arsonist down, he pulls the rug out from under you. It’s not so much expecting a zig and getting a zag, but expecting a zig and having a steamroller blindside you into a human pancake. We’re talking corruption and conspiracies on a James Ellroy level here.

Don't take my word for it, here's January magazine's review (link).

Highly recommended.

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