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By Don Winslow

Ballantine; 2001, $6.99 (Paperback)
ISBN: 0-8041-1611-3

Reviewed by Anthony V. Rainone

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE won the Shamus Award for 2000 and the book simply kicks ass. Jack Wade is an insurance claims investigator in Southern California who specializes in fire. He can read a fire scene like a computer geek can read code. He gets assigned to a claim for a multimillion-dollar house that burns down in Dana Point. A woman dies in the fire and no one thinks its suspicious, except for Jack. He goes on a mission to find the murderer.

The narrative is hip, breezy and moves at the rapid pace of a fire lick running along a trail of gasoline. This book is too good to put down. During the course of his investigation, the reader discovers that Jack is an ex-cop with unusual interview techniques and a complicated past love issue. The man is also seriously into surfing. Coming into the crosshairs of Jack's disciplined and obsessed search for truth is the dead woman's ex-husband. Nicky Vale appears to be a rich, arrogant American living the large dream on the outside, but Jack uncovers a sordid and suspicious Russian background. Nicky Vale is as complex a character as you're going to find in fiction.

Winslow layers in a great deal about the mechanics and physics of fire that I found to be utterly riveting. You will never look at a photo of a burned down house the same way again. He explodes the circle of suspicion into a wide arc until the reader is not sure who is guilty and the ending is unexpected. Jack Wade is one cool investigator who truly marches to his own beat, and while I may not have liked all his choices, he is compelling and spot-on with his morals.

Read this book. Now.

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