Monday, March 3, 2014

California Fire and LifeCalifornia Fire and Life by Don Winslow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Everything is exaggerated in Don Winslow's "California Fire and Life". The good guy, Jack, is way too good. Pamela and Letty are too attractive. The bad guy, Nicky, is just too bad. The Russian prison zeks suffer too horribly. Everything in the book is way over the top. The author is screaming to me all the time rather than talking.

The novel deals with massive insurance fraud and unwholesome activities of Russian mafia and some other ethnic gangs. Jack Wade is a claims adjuster for the California Fire and Life Mutual Insurance Company. He is also a remarkably accomplished arson investigator; several fragments of the book rise to popular science quality in teaching the reader about the nature of fires. Despite the author's fondness for silly anthropomorphizations, I find this scientific bent a strength of the novel.

The other thing that I will not easily forget from the novel is the whole exercise of a mock trial conducted in front of a focus group jury, with the mock jurors pulling levers up or down (defense vs. prosecution) depending on their gut reaction to the testimony. The "trial by lever", by blurring the distinction between "reality TV" and the actual, real reality, would be a major perversion of justice.

Mr. Winslow's writing is a prime example of "macho prose". His language is so cool that it reads almost as a parody. A character drives a 'Stang; apparently dudes driving plain Mustangs are just not cool enough. The very fast and violent plot is punctuated by "sphincter moments". The ending is so full of twists that it becomes ridiculous. I have been quite inclined to rate the book with just one star because of its absurdly fast pace and the "all or nothing" approach to capturing the reader's attention. Yet the fire science fragments and the jury focus group thread are superb, and greatly increase the appeal of the novel. If only the author changed gears from time to time rather than staying in the permanent fifth, I would even forgive the pretentiously cool writing.

Two and three quarter stars.

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