Cover image for California fire and life
California fire and life
Winslow, Don, 1953-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Physical Description:
337 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Library
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Jack Wade, a claims adjuster for California Fire and Life Mutual Insurance Company, is one of the best arson investigators around. He's a man who knows fire, who can read the traces it leaves behind like a roadmap. When he's called in to examine an unusual claim, the tracks of the fire tell him that something's wrong. So wrong that he violates his own cardinal rule--"You don't get personal, you don't get emotional. Whatever you do, you don't get involved"--and plunges into the case. Real estate mogul Nicky Vale's house is one of the most valuable properties on this stretch of the Southern California gold coast--large, luxurious, crammed with antiques, set on a nice piece of land with a perfect ocean view. After a disastrous blaze tears through a wing of the house, it's only normal that Vale would file an insurance claim. But a $3 million claim is rarely normal, especially not when it's filed within hours of the horrific death of the owner's young and beautiful wife. The County Sheriff's Department investigator, Brian "Accidentally" Bentley, has declared the fire, well, accidental--caused by Mrs. Vale's passing out in bed with a bottle of vodka and a lit cigarette--although a careful look at the evidence points to something more sinister. When Jack begins his investigation, he draws on his skill, experience and sheer stubbornness to uncover the truth of what's going on, but each step leads him further into a situation that's becoming increasingly dangerous. Soon arson is the least of Jack's worries, as the case grows to involve the Russian mob, Vietnamese gangs, real estate scams, counterfeiting and corporate corruption. In addition, Jack's forced to confront his own ghosts, including a fatal professional error, and to cope with the sudden reentry into his life of the best thing that ever happened to him: Letitia del Rio, a Sheriff's deputy whose bombshell looks are exceeded only by her smarts and guts. As the investigation spins out of control, Jack finds himself pulled so far in that he might not make it out. His outrageous behavior and defiant integrity, usually about as helpful to him as third-degree burns, may now be the only things that will keep the investigation--and Jack himself--from being snuffed out.

Author Notes

Don Winslow was born in New York City on October 31, 1953. He received a degree in African history from the University of Nebraska. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as a movie theater manager, private investigator, safari guide, actor, theater director and consultant. His works include A Cool Breeze on the Underground, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, The Winter of Frankie Machine, Savages, The Kings of Cool, The Cartel, and the Neal Carey Mysteries series. His novel California Fire and Life won the Shamus Award. In 2016, he won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for best crime thriller of the year for The Cartel. He has also written for film and television.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Jack Wade, an arson adjuster for California Fire and Life Mutual, understands the science of fire. What he doesn't understand is people. A dozen years ago, he was bounced from the sheriff's department on a bum rap, and ever since he's refused to let anything get "personal." But the house-fire death of wealthy young mother Pamela Vale becomes extremely personal when Jack learns she is the half-sister of his former lover, Lettie Del Rio. When the medical examiner tells Jack there was no smoke in the victim's lungs, he smells trouble; Pamela's estranged husband's eagerness to file a $1 million claim only confirms his suspicions. Others disagree; the sheriff's department hastily rules the fire an accidental death and makes it clear that alternative theories aren't welcome. Even Jack's company, which is looking at a huge payout, seems eager to sweep Pamela Vale under the rug. Jack's dogged pursuit of the truth generates additional opposition from the Southern California chapter of the Russian Mafia and a renegade Vietnamese gang. Winslow, an experienced investigator himself, has penned a focused, street-smart tale in which Jack Wade has to experience the truth within himself before he can solve his case. This one is tough as nails and entertaining as hell. --Wes Lukowsky

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 livesÄor 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 extrasÄRussian 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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A house goes up in flames, a body is found in the ashes, and claims adjuster Jack Wade wonders why the police keep insisting it's an accidentÄand why the man whose wife died in the conflagration is rushing the claim. Another from the author of The Death and Life of Bobby Z. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

-Jack Wade is one of the best arson investigators in Orange County. While trying to convict an arsonist as well as protect the life of an informant, he bends the rules till they shatter. He roughs up the suspect, extracts an illegal confession, and then lies under oath during the trial. His partner admits the truth and Jack is out of a job, a reputation, and a relationship. Twelve years later, readers find him working for the California Fire and Life Mutual Insurance Company while spending the rest of his time surfing. A fire that results in the death of the beautiful young wife of real-estate kingpin Nicky Vale and a three-million dollar insurance claim needs to be investigated before the insurance company will pay. The sheriff's department and Jack's old partner have already ruled it an accident. Pamela Vale apparently had a drinking problem, was smoking in bed, and set herself ablaze. Except Jack learns that there was no smoke in her lungs-how could she have died in the fire without inhaling any? His investigation takes him into the brutal workings of the Russian mafia, of which Nicky Vale is a powerful member. What will intrigue young adults, beyond the interesting narrative, is the compelling story of fire told through Jack's sardonic voice and witticisms. His character is well drawn, likable, and suffers the consequences of his all-to-human errors. An entertaining and fast-paced read that will capture YA mystery fans.-Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from California Fire and Life by Don Winslow All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.