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California Fire and Life

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Overview

From Don Winslow, the bestselling author of Savages (now an Oliver Stone film).

Jack Wade was the rising star of the Orange County Sheriffs Department’s arson unit, but a minor scandal cost him everything, except his encyclopedic knowledge of fire. Now working as an insurance claims investigator, Jack is called in to examine a suspicious claim: real estate millionaire Nicky Vale's house has burned to a crisp—with his young and gorgeous wife in...

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Overview

From Don Winslow, the bestselling author of Savages (now an Oliver Stone film).

Jack Wade was the rising star of the Orange County Sheriffs Department’s arson unit, but a minor scandal cost him everything, except his encyclopedic knowledge of fire. Now working as an insurance claims investigator, Jack is called in to examine a suspicious claim: real estate millionaire Nicky Vale's house has burned to a crisp—with his young and gorgeous wife in it. Jack follows the evidence into the crime infested inferno of the California underworld, filled with Russian mobsters, Vietnamese hoods, American crooks, and enough smoldering vice to char the entire gold coast. Things get so hot and deadly that Jack might not make it out alive . . . that is until he decides to fight fire with fire.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
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

From the Publisher
“A smoking, smoldering threat of a book that flickers and flames and inevitably goes inferno. . . . Cover to cover, it is hot, hot, hot.” —Austin Chronicle

“The best crime thriller of the year. . . . Mixes two parts of Elmore Leonard with an equal portion of Carl Hiaasen to form an irreverent, ribald hybrid of a thriller that's pure fun.”
The Providence Journal

“[Winslow finds] a dark, sinister lyricism in the forensics of fire.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A jazzy California thriller. . . . Think Philip Marlowe if he were still sleuthing—and had taken up surfing.”
Entertainment Weekly (Editor's Choice)

Marilyn Stasio
...[W]hen the plot turns on Jackrevealing an elaborate scheme of corporate corruption that calls for him to play the fall guythe heat intensifies until everything this scrappy hero values ends up in ashes. —The New York Times Book Review
U.S. News
...[P]rose so raw it makes you feel hard-boiled...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jack Wade is "basically a Dalmatian": when a fire happens he's there. Jack, who works to live and lives to surf, was a sheriff's department fire investigator until he got caught planting evidence in a warehouse arson to protect a witness, and is now the top claims adjuster for California Fire and Life. That means sifting around in the ashes of other people's lives--or in this case, deaths. When Pamela Vale passes out drunk and accidentally burns down the west wing of her Dana Point mansion, along with half a million dollars of her husband's antique furniture, Jack thinks maybe it wasn't an accident. There's no smoke in her lungs, and the smoke from the fire should have been yellow or orange, not the reported blood red, plus the dog was outside. "People will never burn the pooch," Jack knows, and he begins to search through the remains. Winslow (The Death and Life of Bobby Z), who himself worked more than 15 years with L.A. arson investigators, follows Jack through the burned char of the Vale house, where, in the novel's most compelling scene, he tracks down the history of the fire and reads its secrets. Pitted against him is a formidable adversary: Pamela's estranged husband, Daziatnik Valeshin, now known as Nicky Vale, who has survived a Russian prison camp to make himself over into the model of a perfect Southern California gentleman. Jack's investigation is packed with extras--Russian organized crime, faked freeway accidents, a $50 million insurance scam. But Southern California is captured perfectly in all its hyperbolic splendor, its overdeveloped beachfronts, its sudden, mysterious blazes and freeway chills. If the plot contains a few too many contrivances and coincidences, Winslow's knowledge of his subject and his territory, and the narrative's rapid pace, keep the entertainment value at steady flame. 60,000 first printing; simultaneous Random House audio. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Winslow's latest novel is a complex tale of murder and insurance fraud that keeps the reader alert and guessing right to the end. Jack Wade is working as an insurance adjuster specializing in fire investigation when he stumbles into a huge insurance scam involving the Russian Mafia and what seems like half the state of California. Writing in a gritty shorthand style that perfectly evokes the hard-nosed and dogged detective, Winslow carefully and painstakingly educates the reader about the life and characteristics of fire--both accidental and intentionally set. Amazingly, he does this in a way that isn't the least bit dry or dull by giving the fire its own personality. Winslow is the author of several Neal Carey mysteries as well as The Life and Death of Bobby Z. (LJ 4/1/97). This latest thriller won't disappoint. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/99.]--Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Whether you're new to arson-fraud fiction or an old fan, this burn-by-burn account—think Double Indemnity in flames—could be the only novel on the subject you'll ever need. Jack Wade, bounced off the Orange County Sheriff's Office 12 years ago for beating a confession out of a suspect and lying about it under oath, has been a bulldog claims investigator for California Fire and Life Mutual ever since, but he's about to meet his match (to make one of the few arson puns Winslow doesn't exploit). Society fund-raiser Pamela Vale has been burned to death in a home fire that Jack's old nemesis, fire investigator Brian Bentley, has pronounced accidental. Based on a survey of the physical evidence that would do Patricia Cornwell proud, Jack's certain Pam Vale and her house were torched, and just as certain the arsonist is her husband Nicky, who phoned Jack to discuss his claim the morning after the blaze. Jack doesn't know about Nicky's ties to the KGB and the Russian mafia (which Winslow, as thorough as Jack, explains in numbing detail), but he can see that the good times had stopped rolling for the overextended developer; he doesn't believe the alibi Nicky's controlling mother gives him; and he's shocked but delighted when his former lover, Sheriff's deputy Letitia de Rio, turns out to be Pam's half-sister. Getting their act together again, Jack and Letty build an impressive case against Nicky. But when California Fire and Life finally confronts Nicky, Jack suddenly realizes he's been caught in as sweet a scam as he's ever seen, with no way to avoid going down in flames (oops). Though Winslow (The Death and Life of Bobby Z, 1997, etc.) writes as crudely as he puns, his plotting isshapely and inventive, and most readers will get caught up in the tale of Jack's treacherous descent into hot water and his miraculous escape. The whole story reads like a house afire—a real barn-burner. (First printing of 60,000)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307279859
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/4/2007
  • Series: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 321,706
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Don Winslow has worked as a private investigator in London, New York City, and elsewhere in the United States, and as a consultant to law firms and insurance companies for more than fifteen years. He lives with his wife Jean and son Thomas in Dana Point, CA and Riverton, CT.

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Read an Excerpt

1

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.

2

George Scollins doesn't wake up, either.

Reason for this is that he's lying at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck.

It's easy to see how this might have happened—Scollins's little Laguna Canyon house is a freaking mess. Tools, wood, furniture lying all over the place, you can hardly walk across the floor without tripping on something.

In addition to the tools, wood and furniture, you have paint cans, containers of stain, plastic bottles full of turpentine, cleaning rags .
. .

This is also the reason the house is a bonfire.

Not surprising, really.

Not surprising at all.

California fire and life.

3

Two Vietnamese kids sit in the front of a delivery truck.

The driver, Tommy Do, pulls it off into a parking lot.

"Middle of freaking nowhere," says Tommy's buddy, Vince Tranh.

Tommy doesn't give a shit, he's happy to be getting rid of the load, a truck full of hot stuff.

Tommy pulls over by a Caddy.

"They love their Caddies," Tranh says to him in Vietnamese.

"Let 'em," Tommy says. Tommy's saving for a Miata. A Miata is cool. Tommy can see himself cruising in a black Miata, wraparound shades on his face, a babe with long black hair beside him.

Yeah, he can see that.

Two guys get out of the Caddy.

One of them's tall. Looks like one of those Afghan hounds, Tommy thinks, except the guy's wearing a dark blue suit that has got to be hot standing out there in the desert. The other guy is shorter, but broad. Guy wears a black Hawaiian print shirt with big flowers all over it, and Tommy thinks he looks like a jerk. Tommy has him tabbed as the leg breaker, and Tommy is going to be glad to get his money, unload and get the fuck back to Garden Grove.

As a general rule, Tommy doesn't like doing business with non-Vietnamese, especially these people.

Except the money this time is too good.

Two grand for a delivery job.

The big guy in the flowered shirt opens a gate and Tommy drives through it. Guy closes the gate behind them.

Tommy and Tranh hop out of the truck.

Blue Suit says, "Unload the truck."

Tommy shakes his head.

"Money first," he says.

Blue Suit says, "Sure."

"Business is business," Tommy says, like he's apologizing for the money-first request. He's trying to be polite.

"Business is business," Blue Suit agrees.

Tommy watches Blue Suit reach into the jacket pocket for his wallet, except Blue Suit takes out a silenced 9mm and puts three bullets in a tight pattern into Tommy's face.

Tranh stands there with this oh-fucking-no look on his face but he doesn't run or anything. Just stands there like frozen, which makes it easy for Blue Suit to put the next three into him.

The guy in the flowered shirt hefts first Tommy, then Tranh, and tosses their bodies into the Dumpster. Pours gasoline all over them then tosses a match in.

"Vietnamese are Buddhists?" he asks Blue Suit.

"I think so."

They're speaking in Russian.

"Don't they cremate their dead?"

Blue Suit shrugs.

An hour later they have the truck unloaded and the contents stored in the cinder block building. Twelve minutes after that, Flower Shirt drives the truck out into the desert and makes it go boom.

California fire and life.

4

Jack Wade sits on an old Hobie longboard.

Riding swells that refuse to become waves, he's watching a wisp of black smoke rise over the other side of the big rock at Dana Head. Smoke's reaching up into the pale August sky like a Buddhist prayer.

Jack's so into the smoke that he doesn't feel the wave come up behind him like a fat Dick Dale guitar riff. It's a big humping reef break that slams him to the bottom then rolls him. Keeps rolling him and won't let him up—it's like, That's what you get when you don't pay attention, Jack. You get to eat sand and breathe water—and Jack's about out of breath when the wave finally spits him out onto the shore.

He's on all fours, sucking for air, when he hears his beeper go off up on the beach where he left his towel. He scampers up the sand, grabs the beeper and checks the number, although he's already pretty sure who it's going to be.

California Fire and Life.

5

The woman's dead.

Jack knows this even before he gets to the house because when he calls in it's Goddamn Billy. Six-thirty in the morning and Goddamn Billy's already in the office.

Goddamn Billy tells him there's a fire and a fatality.

Jack hustles up the hundred and twenty steps from Dana Strand Beach to the parking lot, takes a quick shower at the bathhouse then changes into the work clothes he keeps in the backseat of his '66 Mustang. His work clothes consist of a Lands' End white button-down oxford, Lands' End khaki trousers, Lands' End moccasins and an Eddie Bauer tie that Jack keeps preknotted so he can just slip it on like a noose.

Jack hasn't been inside a clothing store in about twelve years.

He owns three ties, five Lands' End white button-down shirts, two pairs of Lands' End khaki trousers, two Lands' End guaranteed-not-to-wrinkle-even-if-you-run-it-through-your-car-engine blue blazers (a rotation deal: one in the dry cleaners, one on his back) and the one pair of Lands' End moccasins.

Sunday night he does laundry.

Washes the five shirts and two pairs of trousers and hangs them out to unwrinkle. Preknots the three ties and he's ready for the workweek, which means that he's in the water a little before dawn, surfs until 6:30, showers at the beach, changes into his work clothes, loops the tie around his neck, gets into his car, pops in an old Challengers tape and races to the offices of California Fire and Life.

He's been doing this for coming up to twelve years.

Not this morning, though.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Working Back

    Having started with Don Winslow's current novels, those who loved this one have some really good books in store for them. Don Winslow has honed his craft since California Fire and Life, smoothing out the edges and learning even more of those author tricks that make a great novel. This one is good enough, but I would have eased up on the arson classes. Corruption is a common focus with Winslow. Here he takes us for a look from the outside, later, such as in The Power of the Dog, he takes us right inside, as close as he can get us. So don't stop with this one!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2014

    Good Book

    Liked the book, interesting plot. At first I liked all the fire science but it bogged down at times, still very interesting.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 10, 2013

    Excellent

    Winslow is a first-rate writer. I am reading my way through all of his books. No disappointments. This one is funny, tragic, well-plotted.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2005

    Sit Down and Buckle Up!!

    Outstanding story, plot twists abound but don't muddle the story,intriguing characters superbly written. Can't say enough great things about this book!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2000

    Super Beach Read

    Alomost didn't read this book as the title and cover were not interesting but was I in for a delighful suprise! Twists and turns and just a great read. Passed it on to friends and they were delighted and anxious to see what else he had written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2013

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