Joseph Wambaugh – “Fire Lover”

Fire LoverSurreal.

“Fire Lover” is a true crime recounting of one of the most notorious arsonists in Los Angeles history.

An arsonist who just happened to be a firefighter and arson investigator.

The details are gripping and so is the pursuit of John Orr by investigators—proving patterns, connecting one critical fingerprints, lining up eyewitnesses, seeing the big picture. That is, when they aren’t stumbling around or failing at some basic investigative processes.

As others have noted, there isn’t much suspense. But “Fire Lover” is worth reading, for no other reason than to digest a gritty portrait of a deeply troubled individual whose issues with women, authority, self-respect and self-esteem are complex, layered and disturbing. Orr, whose crimes were committed decades ago, turned personal slights into terror.

“Fire Lover” is also about the slow wheels of bureaucracy and the methodical means of the criminal justice system and Wambaugh brings plenty of edge to writing about both, particularly when the cops and investigators fail.

Wambaugh’s colorful prose style keeps the sordid tale moving. His descriptions are over the top, at times, and hilarious in a tabloid kind of way. This book was first published in 2002 and I don’t know if Wambaugh has changed his style since then, but a highlighter marking the purple prose might be dry by book’s end.

A member of the L.A. Arson Task Force has hair “so coiffed it’d stay in place till Christ came back.” Wambaugh jumps into collective consciousness when it’s convenient: “The judge gave the obligatory admonishment about not reading any news articles or listening to any radio or TV reports about the case, and everyone thought, Fat Chance.”

Or: “So after goosing the jurors with a cattle prod, he’d gone back to smacking them with a pig bladder.”

At times, Wambaugh stretches to near cartoon levels. A firefighter’s “neck hair was putting out enough electricity to light up Burbank.”

Despite the excessive and decidedly non-journalistic flair, the core of the story is a compelling portrait of a dark man who recklessly torched property, homes and businesses with supremely casual disregard for human life.

In a way, it’s too bad such a big name as Wambaugh had to write the book because that fact alone probably made Orr happy—and the guy, still serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, deserves nothing of the sort.

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