Fire Lover

I first encountered the story of John Orr in an American Justice episode. Something about an arson investigator who sets fires along the way to an arson conference, like a child leaving a trail of blueberries in hopes a rabbit will follow, was unforgettably improbable. The full story of the Glendale fire captain and his little habit is told by true crime great Joseph Wambaugh in his patented police-procedural-style in Fire Lover.

Even if he hadn't been a arsonist, John Orr would have been a notable jerk. Apparently Orr yearned to join the LAPD but didn't make the cut and subsequently nursed a resentment toward police and life in general. (Wambaugh declares that the LAPD was Harvard of policing in the 1970s. He may be prejudiced just a tad being a former LAPDer himself. Of course, being an East Coast native my immediate reaction was "No way someone would rather work on the LAPD than the NYPD!" And that was based on no first hand knowledge so, who knows, maybe Wambaugh is right.) Orr instead gets a job as a fireman, ultimately becoming an arson investigator in Glendale all the while complaining about the arrogance of the police. He also, bizarrely, becomes obsessed with catching shoplifters in his spare time, an activity which instead of earning the respect of the police actually annoys them. Once Orr catches the proverbial punks red-handed, the police have to come and arrest the perp and confiscate their ill-gotten gains of, oh, $25 or so.

How, when and why Orr turns to arson is unclear but turn he does moving from brush-fires to his favorites, starting fires in home improvement stores, one of which results in four deaths. Not content with committing the arsons and in some cases showing up later to film the resulting fire, Orr writes a novel detailing his crimes. A bad novel. A bad novel in which the arsonist is turned on by "his fire." The few passages quoted were enough to convince me that John Orr needs to do hard time just for his writing.

Wambaugh isn't one to dig too deeply into the motivations of criminals beyond what's needed to understand them enough to catch them. I can easily imagine Wambaugh muttering "scumbag" when he wrote about Orr. Not that I disagree. Orr was a scumbag, but his crimes were more interesting than he was.

This is not an easy story to tell because, let's face it, an arsonist works alone. Nor is it the sort of story that is action-packed, most of the police work involves looking at fingerprints and maps. So it's impressive that Wambaugh manages to tell a story that is not only interesting but worthy of the Edgar Award it was given. (I've read two of the other Fact Crime books nominated that year and this book is the best of the three.) Wambaugh does a good job of giving the reader a sense of who the investigators are and what the case means to them without falling into the usual traps of adding in pointless details about their personal lives or fashion choices. This book isn't for all True Crime fans but it's a sure-bet for Wambaugh and police-procedural fans.


Catherine said...

I just disvovered your blog. My name is Catherine Yesayan, recently I've started a blog about stories of my life. I just posted a story about the fire in our neighborhood who was set by Glendale Fire Captain John Orr. I noticed that you have a posted a vignette about the book "Fire Lover." You may be interested to read the eye witness account of the fire in our neighborhood.

Catherine said...

Hello again,
I missed to leave you the URL to my blog. Here it is:

Beyond the Blue Domes...

My email is
I look forward to hearing from you.