Fire Lover: A True Story

( 15 )


On an October evening in South Pasadena, a horrifying wave of flame swept through a large home improvement center, snuffing out the lives of four innocent people, including a two-year-old boy. Firefighters rushed to the scene, even as a pair of equally suspicious fires broke out in two nearby stores. Silently watching the raging inferno in the midst of the heat, smoke, and chaos was a man respected as one of California's foremost arson investigators, a captain in the Glendale ...

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On an October evening in South Pasadena, a horrifying wave of flame swept through a large home improvement center, snuffing out the lives of four innocent people, including a two-year-old boy. Firefighters rushed to the scene, even as a pair of equally suspicious fires broke out in two nearby stores. Silently watching the raging inferno in the midst of the heat, smoke, and chaos was a man respected as one of California's foremost arson investigators, a captain in the Glendale Fire Department ...

From Joseph Wambaugh, the critically acclaimed,nationally bestselling author of The Onion Field, comes the astonishing true story of a nightmarish obsession — and the hunt for a brilliant psychopath who lived a double life filled with professional tributes and terrifying secrets.

Winner of the 2003 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Joseph Wambaugh, author of many bestselling police procedurals, is back with a nonfiction look at the curious case of John Orr, a California arson investigator who became a serial arsonist himself. How did the man authorities called "the most prolific arsonist of the twentieth century" finally get tripped up? And what about the novel about arson he seemed to be researching? To get a handle on what motivated the arsonist, Wambaugh interviewed Orr's co-workers -- firefighters who put their lives on the line to combat fires their own colleague had set -- as well as relatives of those who perished in the blazes.
Arthur Salm
PRAISE FOR FIRE LOVER:“…lines converge in a sock-’em-between-the-eyes revelation…A barn burner.”
Publishers Weekly
Returning to print after a six-year hiatus, former LAPD detective sergeant and bestselling author Wambaugh (The Onion Field, etc.) focuses on firefighters rather than his usual police beat. It's a surprising switch, but Wambaugh's regular readers will not be disappointed, since sparks fly throughout this potent probe into the life of arson investigator John Leonard Orr. Fascinated by fires in his L.A. childhood, Orr learned fire fighting in the air force. An eccentric loner with few friends and a womanizer with a string of failed marriages, he was rejected by the LAPD and LAFD. In 1974 he joined the Glendale Fire Department, where his gun-toting, crime-crusading capers earned him the label "cop wanna-be" from both police and firemen. Rising in the ranks, Orr became well-known as an arson sleuth. He had a sixth sense for tracking pyros, but there was one serial arsonist, responsible for the deaths of four, who remained elusive. In 1990, during the worst fire in Glendale's history, some noted that Orr's behavior "seemed very peculiar." That same year, Orr was appointed fire captain and began writing a "fact-based novel" about a serial arsonist who turns out to be a firefighter and in it Orr revealed certain facts about the unsolved arson case that he couldn't have known through his work. Was Orr the serial arsonist? Wambaugh recreates these events for a suspenseful, adrenaline-rush account of what one profiler dubbed "probably the most prolific American arsonist" of the 20th century. (May 14) Forecast: Wambaugh's name should sell this title, aided by the scheduling of an HBO movie about Orr (starring Ray Liotta) to run only a few weeks after the publication of the book. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A tale of two men a respected fire chief and a prolific arsonist who turned out to be one and the same. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060095284
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/27/2003
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 242,051
  • Product dimensions: 4.18 (w) x 6.75 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective sergeant, is the New York Times bestselling author of The Onion Field, The Blooding, The Choirboys, and many other fiction and nonfiction works. He has won a number of awards, including the Edgar Allan Poe award and the Rodolfo Walsh Prize for investigative journalism. He lives with his wife in California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


South Pasadena is a small city of some twenty thousand residents who live within three square miles of mostly aging homes and limited commercial property. Many of the houses were built in the 1920s, the heyday of California mission architecture, before the Great Depression stifled home building. Neighboring Pasadena, host to the famous Rose Parade, continued building luxury homes well into the 1930s, some of them gems of California style, all in need of periodic renovation. A good place for homeowners to buy materials to refurbish those old houses was Ole's Home Center on Fair Oaks Avenue, an eighteen-thousand-square-foot building in a strip mall, three blocks from the town's only fire station.

At 7:30 P.M. that October evening, a middle-aged couple, Billy and Ada Deal, and their two-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Matthew William Troidl, arrived in Ole's parking lot. Matthew immediately spotted the neighboring Baskin-Robbins and wanted ice cream. His grandfather promised him they would have their treat after they finished shopping, and they walked through the entry door.

Working in the housewares department that evening was seventeen-year-old Jimmy Cetina. He was a high-school senior and a talented athlete. In fact, this varsity center fielder was being scouted by the Chicago Cubs to play double A ball. He had Latino good looks, and had recently entered a Bullock's department store modeling competition and won it. Doubtlessly, he would rather have been at some other place than Ole's Home Center on that October evening, especiallyduring the World Series, but there were seven children in his family who had to look for empty bottles and cans to exchange for deposits if they wanted to buy sports equipment. He needed this job.

Billy and Ada Deal knew that the near-empty store was about to close, so they decided to split up and shop separately to save time. Billy wanted to buy some cheap two-by-fours, so he headed for the lumber display, which was between the north and south fire doors. Ada said she was going to the paint department.

Carolyn Krause was working in the paint department that evening, so she may well have seen the fifty-year-old grandmother pushing her grandson Matthew William in a shopping cart. Carolyn Krause was married to an LAPD lieutenant and had two young children of her own. She may have heard Matthew asking when he was going to get his ice cream. And someone else who was in that store may have heard him too. Or perhaps not. This issue would be later debated in courts of law.

It had been a long shift for Jim Obdam. The young clerk had been working in the hardware department all day and into the evening. Just after 8:00 P.M. he heard something over the PA system, but couldn't make out what had been said. He was headed for the front of the store, toward the south aisle, and there he was astonished to see a column of dark smoke rising from a display rack, all the way to the ceiling.

Jim Obdam hurried toward the west end of the store, looking for customers. He saw people heading toward the exits, but still was not alarmed when he arrived at the paint department.

"Are there any more people in your section?" he asked Carolyn Krause.

She answered, "I'll check my area!" And then she rushed through the hardware department looking for stragglers.

Still, nobody was alarmed. Nobody had seen any fire, just that column of dark smoke. In fact, Jim Obdam found two people browsing in hardware, looking at tools. He told them to leave the store at once.

And then he encountered a middle-aged woman with a small child in a shopping cart. Ada Deal was looking at merchandise on an end cap at the foot of the aisle.

"We've got to leave the store," Jim Obdam told her. "But don't be alarmed."

Ada Deal put some merchandise into the cart behind her grandson, Matthew. Jim Obdam walked hurriedly down the north aisle toward the main part of the store, but when he looked around, Ada Deal hadn't started to follow, so he went back.

"You should probably leave the cart here," he said, more forcefully. "Take the child and let's go!"

And then he headed toward the front of the store, assuming that Ada Deal and her grandson were following behind him. He was near the north fire door, about two aisles away, when he looked back toward that column of smoke. But it was no longer a cloud. It was a wall of flame. It was bright orange and raging. Then he noticed the north fire door had closed. That steel door had dropped down.

When he turned to look for the woman and child he heard a popping noise and the lights went out. And Jim Obdam suddenly felt alone and trapped.

A bell chimed in the lumber area: "Ting ting ting." That's how Billy Deal described it. And there was an unintelligible announcement. He thought that the store was closing so he looked at his watch. It was 8:05 P.M. Yes, it must be a closing announcement, he thought.

But then a peculiar thing happened. A young man on a forklift jumped off the vehicle and cried, "My God, it's a fire!" And he took off running.

Billy looked around. He couldn't see what the young man was getting excited about. There was nothing. But suddenly some people ran through the fire door and yelled, "Get outta here! There's a fire!"

Billy peered through that door, that fireproof barricade, toward the west side of the store, and he saw a big cloud of smoke in the center of the space. He ran toward the south fire door searching for Ada and Matthew, and when he got...

Fire Lover. Copyright © by Joseph Wambaugh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Interviews & Essays

Burning Down the House
From the May/June 2002 issue of Book magazine.

After 33 years of writing about pedophiles, cop killers and rapists, Joseph Wambaugh -- a former Los Angeles Police Department detective whose first novel, 1971's The New Centurions, elevated the pulpy procedural to a more literary form -- needed a break. "I thought I was retired, or just tired," says Wambaugh, 65. But that was before he came across the case of John Orr, a California arson investigator-turned-serial arsonist, who is currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years.

Wambaugh turned this bizarre story into Fire Lover, his first book in six years. For the bestselling author of 11 critically acclaimed novels and 4 nonfiction books, it's the 5th true-crime exposé, but it's his first to focus on the fire department rather than the police.

"This case is truly a situation of fact being stranger than fiction," says Mike Matassa, the lead investigator at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who assisted Wambaugh with research after helping to crack the case. (Orr was eventually apprehended after leaving a fingerprint at one of his crime scenes.)

Wambaugh recalls seeing newspaper reports of pyromaniacal activities that would later prove to be Orr's -- the U.S. government calls him the most prolific arsonist of the 20th century -- but the writer didn't become interested in the case until well into the arsonist's trial. It took a tape of an episode of Nova about the case -- sent to Wambaugh by a fan -- to kindle his interest. He started researching the story and got in touch with Matassa. "I helped to fill in the gaps from the official court records on the prosecution and give him a feel for what was happening day to day in the investigation," Matassa says. "I put him in touch with the key figures so he could develop a sense of what they were like as individuals."

Wambaugh reached out to firemen who had fought Orr's blazes, his former partners in arson investigation, and relatives of the victims. (One particular fire -- which Wambaugh discusses in the book's opening chapter -- claimed four lives.) But the single most illuminating element may have been the firebug's unpublished novel, Points of Origin, which was made public during the trial. In it, an arson investigator is pitted against a serial arsonist who finds bizarre connections between sex and fire -- a conceit that ultimately gave rise to the title of Wambaugh's book.

Wambaugh says that serial arsonists are among the least understood of all serial offenders. ("Only a handful have ever been captured, let alone profiled," he points out.) But after decades of exposing the inside of police departments, he has now succeeded in shedding light on the equally complex world of firefighters and fire investigators -- and along the way he's provided insight into the passion for committing arson. (Adam Dunn)
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2008


    I'm a firefighter/EMT in Verde Valley, AZ and loved the book. I like how Wambaugh got into the shoes of a firefighter (not easy for a cop to do) and told the story in a way that kept you entertained throughout. I would reccomend it to anyone!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent true-life crime biography

    As a child in Los Angeles, John Orr revered firefighters watching them as if he was sitting in front of a TV set. He relished the way the firefighter risked his or her life in the line of duty. As a young adult, John joined the Glendale, California Fire Department and quickly became one of the best. Over time, he became a fire captain and eventually an arson investigator highly regarded by his peers as one of the foremost experts. <P>John also moonlighted as an arsonist who remained undetectable for years and whose fires killed four people and caused millions of dollars in damage. When he finally made an error and was caught, the entire firefighting community refused to believe that one of their heroes could be a serial arsonist. <P>The hardest thing about this true-life crime biography is that it is true crime caused by someone whose dangerous occupation most people respect even more so after 9/11. So chilling is this account this reviewer keeps wanting to paraphrase an old horror movie ad that it¿s only a book. However, Joseph Wambaugh brings the fiery duality of his subject vividly alive so that the reader observes a criminal considered by the FBI as 'the most prolific American arsonist of the twentieth century'. Fans of true crime will want to read this account that never slows down as FIRE LOVER: A TRUE STORY is Mr. Wambaugh at his finest. <P>Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 29, 2014

    This book is especially interesting to me. I lived on one of the

    This book is especially interesting to me. I lived on one of the areas this maniac was setting fires in. Mr. Wambaugh thank you for the information the news and officials didn't tell us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2012

    Was his love for fire to much?

    Growing up, John Orr couldn't wait for the day that he would become a firefighter, yet did he know that he would eventually become a fire captain and arson investigator who was highly regarded by the fire community.

    As John became an adult, he joined the Glendale, California fire department where he would work his way up to an arson investigator. The love he showed for his job was seen by his fellow peers in the fire community. John was looked well upon for his dedication and love for the job, although the community didn't know that John loved fire more than what they all saw. As the novel continues, John Orr actively becomes an arsonist himself, who killed four people and caused millions of dollars in damage. John managed to reamin undetectable for years, but once the community found out that it was John causing all the fires, no one could believe it. They never thought one of their fire heroes would become the person that he tried to prevent from harming the community.

    The novel really displayed the job of firefighters to the reader and explained the reasons for all their years of duty. Joseph Wambaugh was able to prove that love for a job can sometimes be taken a little far, but the love is what strived John Orr to do what he did for so long. If you're looking for a good descriptive book on the detailed job of dedicated firefighters, then read Fire Lover, it will captivate your mind and never slow down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2009

    Incredible? Not so much.

    Great read; however, for me, it was not up to the standards already set by Mr. Wambaugh. Background at times tedious. . .didn't keep me wanting to keep turning pages the way his prior books had done.

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  • Posted March 19, 2009



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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2003

    Another Wambaugh great!

    I have read most everything this author has written; both fiction and non. Wambaugh lovers will find his usual clever wit, attention to detail and background information. General 'true crime' lovers will find a fascinating plot full of informative detail about the crime of arson and the personality of the serial arsonist. This book's one that's hard to put down for sure.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2003

    Disabled Veteran and Former Militay Police K9 Handler/Trainer/Instructor gives thumbs up

    As usual, Joseph Wambaugh has done an outstanding job. This book maintained my attention to where I read it in such a short time period. Well written and esay to understand. I'd recommend this book for anyone to read. Hard to believe there are guys like John Orr out there but there are. Wanna be heros in every aspect of life. This is the first actual Joeseph Waumbaugh book I have read but have seen several of his stories in video format. Excellent writer.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2002

    Wish There Were Pictures

    Mr. Wambaugh is an excellent writer, altho, this particular story about J.L.Orr was a bit drawn out, and too factual; even though it is impt. to have facts in the story due to it's nature. Is or will there be a movie made about this story? Just wondering? I would've like to have known what Orr was thinking throughout his trial, there was no mention of his thoughts in his words, just how he felt, but, no quotes. Also, I still don't know what this character looks like. Where can I just see a picture of him? Otherwise, keep up the good work Mr. Wambaugh. Sincerely, Marie

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2002


    One of the best true stories i have ever read. I do not read too many true stories but this was wonderful. lynne from new jersey.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2002

    Very Good, but Not His Best.

    I have read everything that Wambaugh has written. He handles fiction better than truth although this was quite good reading. I guess I was hoping for a twist at the end that never came. I hope that it does not encourage copy-cat arsonists since the description of the delay mechanism was quite clear. I also hope that the author doesn't wait so long to write his next book. This one came long after The Blooding.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2002

    Good, Somewhat Tedious Reading

    The reader should be prepared for much in the way of lawyer talk and synopsis and a lot of repetition of incidents. The book is well grounded and tells an important story, but seems drawn out. The story is a reminder that too much protectionsim in the fire service can color how you may view one of your own brothers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    Very good reading

    I really enjoyed this book, especially since I could relate to it since most of it occurred in my city and there were fires in which I tried to help people from it. A lot of fascinating events, both legal and from a psychological point of view.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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