California Fire And Life by Don Winslow
California, what a place! It has scenery, drugs, beautiful women and fine wine. It has it all. There are even some great Irish pubs. It also has Jack Wade, disgraced cop, surf aficionado and investigator for California Fire And Life Insurance.
Jack’s cop career went off the rails when he assaulted a violent thug who was going to get away with an arson that killed a security guard. Jack’s partner betrayed him and so Jack lost it all. His job disappeared, his cop girlfriend Letty was forced to leave, and his self-respect vanished into thin air. Eventually, he was head-hunted by Billy from California Fire And Life, who said he believed in Jack and gave him his dignity back.
It worked out well. Jack made an exceptional investigator in matters of arson and accidental fire. Then came Pamela Vale and her terrible death in a house fire. The police officer responsible for her case turned out to be none other than Jack’s treacherous old partner, Bentley, who quickly ruled it accidental. Jack disagrees and resolves to find out what really happened as his employers stand to lose a considerable sum should they be forced to pay out. There also the not inconsequential matter of justice being done.
Pamela’s husband, Nicky, is a Russian gangster trying to go legit. But he’s still a nasty piece of work with some equally nasty associates. When he appears relatively unconcerned by his wife’s untimely demise, Jack decides to focus his spotlight in that direction. As it turns out, Pamela is the sister of Jack’s ex, Letty, who has sworn to take down Nicky Vale for what she believes is murder. But who can prove it? Take a guess.
This is one of the slickest novels you will ever read. The story is so slick, in fact, that when this book was first opened, the text slid off the pages and onto the floor. Rebel Voice had one hell of a time trying to scoop California Fire And Life up and back between the covers. Sawdust was required, which is a fire hazard in its own right. Irony, you gotta love it.
The plot has so many delightful twists and turns as to leave you in knots. There is quite a lot of detail, very interesting detail, about fire. The reader will learn how they start, are classified, move and feed. Their destructive capabilities are also entered into. California Fire And Life is an education in how to be, or catch, a pyromaniac. It also provides a lot of detail on insurance claims and scams. None of this is as boring as you might think. When set in the context of Jack Wade’s investigations, it becomes fascinating.
As Jack digs deeper, he becomes more certain that Nicky Vale murdered his wife and attempted to cover it up. The signs are all there for someone who knows where to look. Jack therefore feels that he is justified in denying Nicky’s substantial insurance claim. However, it’s at that point that the faeces really thumps into the air-movement unit. Jack begins to wonder if he has considered every angle in this case, and starts to fear that he has missed something really huge that might come back to destroy him. It may be that he’s not on the same level as those trying to scam him. In life, it’s usually not a good idea to mess with the Russians, just ask Conor McGregor.
There are bad guys galore in California Fire And Life; Russian bad guys; Armenian bad guys; Vietnamese bad guys and some good ole white bread US bad guys. There happen to be some good guys – and gals – also. Then there are those who are difficult to pigeon-hole. Each character is complete. Each is engaging.
The settings are glorious. The California coast is beautifully depicted and Winslow does his utmost to create a vivid image of the landscape. His descriptions are certainly solid and help to nicely frame the action. The dialogue is edgy and smart. It has the feel of a Philip Marlowe novel with its snappy discourse. When a book is this cool, you have to wear a coat and gloves when reading.
As Jack’s investigation weaves this way and that, the reader is left wondering what the hell is going on. Many novels tend to telegraph the ending, but not California Fire And Life. The final reveal in this one caught Rebel Voice by surprize, a very enjoyable experience. It’s always a pleasure to read a thriller that is extremely cleverly plotted and which keeps the reader guessing up until the end. When the overall effect is as good as this one, then it’s certainly going to bring a smile to the face of any readers who appreciate such skill and artistry.
Don Winslow has yet to disappoint Rebel Voice with the quality of his writing. Did we mention that he’s slick? If you have never read anything by this author before, then California Fire And Life is a very good place to start. It was published in 1999 and has aged well (how did people live without smart phones?). But even if you have previously experienced the joy of a Winslow presentation, you must pick this one up. It will leave you with a sense of admiration for just how talented some authors are.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended read with great settings, characters, dialogue and plot. What else is there?