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California Fire and Life [Hardcover]

Don Winslow
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 15 1999
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.

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From Amazon

Before he became a bestselling novelist with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Don Winslow spent 15 years as an arson investigator. His expert knowledge pays off in California Fire and Life, a giant fireball of a thriller about ace arson investigator Jack Wade. Want to know why thick, oily soot on glass might be a sign of arson? Or why arsonists never burn their dogs? Or what the presence of "alligator char" means? You'll learn about this and much more, as Jack sifts through the ashes of a mansion in Orange County on behalf of the insurance company that he works for. A young wife and mother named Pamela Vale burned to death in the fire. Bentley, the sloppy and possibly corrupt sheriff's department fire investigator, claims that it was a case of drinking too much vodka and dropping a cigarette. Jack has his doubts--especially when he meets the woman's ex-husband, Nicky Vale, a slick Russian entrepreneur (read mafia chief) born Daziatnik Valeshin.

Before signing off on the multimillion-dollar insurance policy on Mrs. Vale's life and house, Jack does some more digging. Meanwhile, his old girlfriend--a policewoman who just happens to be the dead woman's half-sister--finds a link between Nicky Vale's Russian mob and a Vietnamese gang of criminals. Jack's insurance firm begins to act strangely, pressuring him to settle the Vale claim. There may be a little too much technical data in California Fire and Life, but Jack--who lives only to surf and investigate arson--is still a fresh and fascinating creation. --Dick Adler

From Publishers 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 livesAor 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 extrasARussian 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Into the Hot Zone May 20 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Old pro Don Winslow sets up a pace and never lets up. The story grows, expands and explodes like the fires that are that are the bedrock of the tale. Jack Wade, the fire investigator for the titled insurance company, is as terse as his name. He works hard, gives value for the dollar and owes nothing to anyone. He is as unengaged as Lew Archer.
There is a lot of fire technology interspersed throughout the book. I was fascinated by all the information and feel it lent credence to the sometimes mystifying plot line. The characters are broadly drawn; this is a plot-event driven tale and has a gruesome factor of +3 out of 5. We aren't looking so much for a particular villain as a conspiracy. Just when the reader thinks he has things narrowed down and is ready for the grand denouement, the clues expand and become more inclusive. Remember "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers"? By the time the movie is half over you suspect your neighbor, wife and sister of being in cahoots with the bad guys. This is true of "California Fire & Life." Everyone and everything begins to look suspect.
A good fast read where you learn a few things in spite of yourself!
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5.0 out of 5 stars One hot read Jan. 10 2001
Take the Southern California angst of Micheal Connelly's Harry Bosch. Add the techno-element of a Tom Clancy. Toss in a dash of the international intrigue of a Robert Ludlum. Set it on fire-- and you have California Fire and Life.
What a treat to find this book. So many of the "new" Southern California school of mystery writers seem to be the same. Sure there are elements here - Jack surfs and his girlfriend is a Latina. But this is a book with a solid driving plot and an interesting angle -- arson.
I must admit I started out planning on only four stars for this book because of the sometimes overwhelming detail about the chemistry and physics of fire. Still the section on fire as a "seduction" is a gem. However, my husband convinced me that this detail (which he heard on tape and couldn't skim over) was one of the best parts of the book. Must be a guy thing.
So, for those who love the best of the classic elements in mystery/thriller reading but are looking for a refreshing change -- my solid thumb up.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Insurance Against Boredom Dec 4 2000
I was looking through my library for something to battle the "blahs" and found this gem. Don Winslow's book is excellent with a clever and tightly constructed plot. The story is written from the point of view of an observer who describes what the colorful and believable characters say, do and think. The realistic dialogue reveals the thought processes of the main characters in a way that cleverly allows the reader to anticipate and follow the action.
Jack Wade is an ex-cop, arson investigator who is employed as a claims adjuster-arson specialist for a large insurance company, California Fire and Life. He investigates a fire claim submitted by Daziatnik Valeshin,aka Nicky Vale, a Russian KGB military officer in the U.S. to investigate/infiltrate/use the Russian Mafia. He uses his connections to make money and put himself in a position of power. Jack's investigation of Vale's claim uncovers arson and murder. Jack stands up against his insurance co. which wants to pay the claim. Why? It is all inter-related, clever and very, very entertaining. It is funny, easy to relate to and would be a movie hit if done right. Highly Recommended!
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2.0 out of 5 stars Boring! Aug. 27 2000
Jack Wade an arson adjuster for California Fire and Life Mutual, he understands and reads fires like no other person I have ever come across. The first half of the book is exactly an EXTREMELY detailed version of how Jack reads fire and how he became an arson adjustor...unfortunately for me, I really can't endure page after page of detailed descriptions for fires and gas chromatography - and I am a scientist!
Finally, after skipping several pages of descriptions about burn marks, patters on the wall and carpet, I finally see a story emerging, but by the time this happens, it is filled with ridiculous characters and plots that I can barely keep my eyes four o'clock in the afternoon!
I had to put this book down about 1/2 way through, I really didn't care anymore about 'whodunit' or 'why'...
If you have insommnia or you really love fires, then buy this book but otherwise stick to Dennis Lehane, John Sandford or James Patterson for interesting crime/thrillers.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful July 28 2000
California Fire and Life Don Winslow Knopf 1999 ISBN 0676549705 H.C. Mystery
I had never heard of Don Winslow before I was sent this book to review, now he is a favorite.
Jack Wade an arson adjuster for California Fire and Life Mutual, understands fires, its the people that he doesn't understand. Wade is a very engaging character, who really knows what he is doing. Jack must investigate a fire that he knows is arson, but others believe is accidental, his own company starts to pressure him to settle the case, but he cant and he breaks his own cardinal rule, "You don't get emotional and what ever you do don't get involved. As Jack gets further and further involved the situation becomes more dangerous. Soon arson is the least of Jacks worry, as the case grows to involve the Russian mob and Vietnamese gangs and much more. This book is a wild ride through the world of fire and insurance. The characters are cool and real life. I especially liked the details of the fire investagationing.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Author Stumbles A Bit...
I have discovered Winslow and have fallen deeply in love with his writing style...but this book failed to grab me. WAY too much detail and an odd, detached feeling to the work. Read more
Published on July 17 2003 by Michael Bryan
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read
I was introduced to Don Winslow 4 years ago when he gave a lecture I attended. I found him to be an incredible speaker with an extensive knowledge base (he was speaking on the... Read more
Published on Feb. 25 2003 by S. Hawkins
5.0 out of 5 stars great pleasure to read
Once again a great story from the Neal Carey adventures-author.
Not as funny ,but surely more thrilling and mature. Read more
Published on Nov. 27 2001 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars HOT! HOT! HOT!
Okay, so maybe my title for this review isn't all that interesting and original, but (and trust me on this one) CALIFORNIA FIRE & LIFE is. Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2001 by "tlcyrol"
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointment
What a disappointment! It sure looks like there's a good mystery in this book somewhere but digging through all the detail and ploding style is just too much. Read more
Published on July 31 2001 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding
A totally excellent read. Don Winslow's style is fresh, forthright and very readable. The plot for this novel is fascinatingly local to the California coast, yet reaches out to... Read more
Published on July 23 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars Involving and clever
One of the better mysteries I've read in a while - sicko villains, very involving fascinating details about arson investigations, fast pace.
Published on July 18 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars Hot stuff
Part murder mystery and part text book on arson, this compelling book pulls you in and holds you. Some people may find the exhaustive research a little bit much to get through,... Read more
Published on July 8 2001 by Steven Witte
5.0 out of 5 stars Hot stuff
Part murder mystery and part text book on arson, this compelling book pulls you in and holds you. Some people may find the exhaustive research a little bit much to get through,... Read more
Published on July 8 2001 by Steven Witte
3.0 out of 5 stars Didn't melt me
I have mixed feelings about this book. I look forward to reading more of his works in hopes of improvement in conciseness. Read more
Published on June 23 2001 by Bridget Hockney
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