I first became aware of this strange and startling case several years ago via a PBS documentary, probably a Frontline production. I was just stunned: a fire captain exposed as a pyromaniac. Obviously the man had some serious "issues" with life, the world, and especially himself. In this lucid, detailed and somewhat spicy narrative, former LAPD detective sergeant and crime writer extraordinary Joseph Wambaugh expands on what was presented in that documentary. His tone and editorial attitude make it clear that he doesn't think much of one John Leonard Orr, former Glendale, California fire captain, who was eventually convicted of setting a string of fires in California. I don't blame Wambaugh. One of the fires that Orr started killed four people, including a child. It's only by fortuitous happenstance that more people were not killed.
Wambaugh's narrative is a little too detailed in recalling the trials, especially the long drawn out penalty phase of the murder trial (perhaps attempting to make it as excruciating for us as it was for the jury); and his early attempt at not disclosing Orr's culpability (for those very few readers who may not have heard of the case) came up a little short as his asides made it clear that Orr was definitely one very sick puppy. Otherwise this is a masterful piece of true crime journalism by someone who has the background to understand the police and detective work involved, someone who has done the extensive research necessary to give us a comprehensive account, and someone with the narrative and organizational skills to produce a compelling volume.
But Wambaugh also gives us a detailed psychological profile of John Orr. He does not use the word "pyromaniac" in his depiction. In fact, I don't think the word "pyromania" occurs in the book until near the end when it is used by a psychiatrist in the penalty stage of Orr's murder by arson trial. Wambaugh's position is that Orr is a psychopath who set fires to boost his ego and stimulate himself sexually. He cared not at all about who got hurt or what damage was done. There is also a strong sense of the "little guy" trying to make up for his feelings of inferiority by committing horrendous acts that would lend his deluded persona a sense of superiority over his fellow man. The fact that at no time does Orr feel any remorse or accept any responsibility for his actions argues for Wambaugh's position. Personally, for what it's worth, I've known a few psychopaths--or sociopaths, as they are alternatively called--and John Orr certainly fits the bill.
Still this is an unusual case of the psychopath at work, and I think it is revealed that part of what John Orr is about is pyromania. Indeed, Wambaugh's title, "Fire Lover," is meant in an almost literal sense. I recall literature from years ago that pyros "got off" on their fires. This is the first case I know of in which we have more or less direct evidence (from Orr's novel/memoir which turned up as evidence in the trials) that this is literally so.
Wambaugh does a good job of providing insights into how the police and fire departments and the criminal justice system operate. He is not shy about revealing carelessness, incompetence, turf warring, and ego side trips. He is particularly adamant in his criticism of the court system and its sometimes arcane procedures. In an extended metaphor he calls the participants in a trial, "strange fish that lazily glide, blowing gas bubbles that pop ineffectually on the surface of the litigation tanks in which they live and breed." (This from page 272. See also pages 291, 299 and elsewhere.)
I'm not sure about how appropriate that interesting metaphor is, but Wambaugh impressed me with his fairness, criticizing and complimenting both the prosecution and the defense. Especially effective was the way he showed how a decade's old case that was once called an accident was successfully prosecuted against what looked like heavy odds, mainly due to the bulldog-like determination of prosecutor Mike Cabral. Wambaugh's description of him in action vis-a-vis the jury on page 273 is an example of the very best in vivid and telling exposition. Clearly Wambaugh has a novelist's sense of characterization, making the principals, especially of course, John Orr, come to life. He side trips himself sometimes with the sort of crude but colorful humor the men in blue are famous for. The cascade of "woodie" jokes might offend some readers, and some of the sexual vulgarity from Orr's "novel" is quoted outright, so beware.
Bottom line: perhaps not Wambaugh's most compelling work, but a good read nonetheless about an extraordinary case.