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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
3.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Author Stumbles A Bit... July 18 2003
Format:Mass Market Paperback
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. If you want to take a ride, read his 'Death and Life of Bobby Z.' It is TOTALLY awesome! And I read 2/3 mystery/thrillers a week.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A great read Feb. 25 2003
Format:Mass Market Paperback
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 American Revolution). I assumed (rather, hoped) that his writing style would follow suit - interesting and informative, yet also direct and captivating.
I was not disappointed. This book is not only a well-written piece of fiction, with a well thought out plot and nicely developed characters, it is also assisted by spectacular research on Winslow's part. This book, which deals with a fire investigation, does not merely provide a shallow and quick look into the details of an investigation; it goes all out (in, rather).
For some people, this might be too much (it's a lot of info on how fires are started and how different fires spread and burn). However, for anyone who likes their reading to have some substance, this is a great find.
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5.0 out of 5 stars great pleasure to read Nov. 27 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Once again a great story from the Neal Carey adventures-author.
Not as funny ,but surely more thrilling and mature.
Hope to get the audio soon,so I can- again-enjoy this fine mystery novel.And easy reading for those not born and raised in English.
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5.0 out of 5 stars HOT! HOT! HOT! Aug. 9 2001
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. Jack Wade, a down-on-his-luck fire insurance investigator, becomes the novel's unlikely hero in this technically-filled thriller (think Crichton meets Ellroy) that combines the science of fire and arson with a slick writing style that often felt like was being read aloud to me. Never was I let down by any of the surprises, flashbacks or characters while reading CA FIRE & LIFE and found myself nearly begging for more. The dialogue was quick and often very witty. The depth of deceit was very believable and never confusing (despite what other reviewers may say). Honestly, I can't say enough good things about this book. Just read it. In CALIFORNIA FIRE & LIFE, Don Winslow has proven himself a great mystery writer.
Now, how about bringing Jack back?
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1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointment July 31 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
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. A great read if you're looking to become an insurance claims adjuster.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding July 23 2001
By A Customer
Format:Mass Market Paperback
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 effortlessly call on international intrigue also. Don Winslow's detail on the mechanics of fire and arson are as good as anything the (early) efforts of Patricia Cornwell and Thomas Harris brought us in the world of forensics.
Jack wade is a likable main character with just enough flaws to get you on his side for the whole ride, and what a ride. This plot twists and turns constantly, believably and enthrallingly. This book will take you to the last page quicker than you think and definitely quicker than you want. Don Winslow knows his stuff and can write.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Involving and clever July 18 2001
By A Customer
Format:Mass Market Paperback
One of the better mysteries I've read in a while - sicko villains, very involving fascinating details about arson investigations, fast pace.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Hot stuff July 9 2001
Format:Mass Market Paperback
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, but for true mystery fans, this book should not be missed. Highly recommended.
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