Review

The Fire Lover: A True Story

by Joseph Wambaugh



"'It was coming fast toward us. The flame. The fire.
Everything.'

They were literally blown outside by a flashover, the instant burn
of gasses and smoke, when the carbon that is smoke burns hotter
than one thousand degrees and the entire contents of a room erupt
in flame and no living thing survives. People, smoke, flames,
merchandise, everything, were blasted through the door into
the cool autumn night."

Trapped in a building engulfed by fire is a horror that hopefully
none of us will ever experience. I came close enough once --- a
department store that became an instant death trap. If I hadn't
been running a half hour late that day, my 11-month-old daughter
and I would have been among the victims. It was a long time ago,
but the experience still lingers just under the surface, which is
why reading THE FIRE LOVER gave me pause, and I've no doubt other
readers will find it just as unsettling. Wambaugh's detailed
account of America's most prolific arsonist of the 20th century is
a mesmerizing and chilling dose of reality.

John Orr grew up in the Los Angeles area, where brush fires were a
frequent occurrence. As a boy he watched in fascination as heroic
firefighters battled the raging flames, saving lives and property.
He wanted to be a hero, too, and enjoy all that that entailed: the
excitement, the risk, the public recognition, the feeling of
control over a life-threatening situation. After a brief stint in
the Air Force where he received training as a firefighter, he
married, started a family and applied to the LAPD to become a
policeman. At the time, the LAPD was considered the finest law
enforcement organization in the country, and Orr no doubt had
visions of a glamorous career as one of LA's finest. But after
impressing everyone with his outstanding test scores, he hit a
stumbling block. He blew his chances in the final phase of the
interview process --- the psychological testing. While it's unclear
what specifics were contained in the examiner's assessment, he was
not accepted to the LAPD training program, which was a major
disappoint for Orr. He then managed to make it into the LAFD
training program, but before becoming an official firefighter he
was washed out for not performing well on the physical
requirements. His next attempt was with the Glendale fire academy,
and that time John Orr completed the program, becoming a
full-fledged fireman, and from that point on nothing stood in his
way.

As the tale of John Orr's life and career unfolds, the reader is
given an evenhanded depiction of a highly intelligent, accomplished
firefighter who rose to the rank of arson investigator. In fact, he
became such an expert in his field that he taught classes, gave
seminars, and the articles he submitted to professional
publications were often cited by his peers as some of the most
insightful research of the time. Yet he was also a man who
manipulated the system, exhibiting a tendency to create situations
that would provide him opportunities to be the heroic public
servant. And while he was generally liked, he was always a loner
whose personal life was a constant procession of failed marriages
and superficial friendships.

As the troubling profile of John Orr intersects with the horrific
events that took place, readers are left to ponder what role, if
any, Orr may have played in them. Although he was eventually
convicted and sentenced to life in prison, there are many,
including some of his fellow firefighters, who still refuse to
believe he was responsible for as many as 2,000 fires, millions in
property damage, and the tragic loss of lives. Many witnesses gave
testimony that would seem to point directly to Orr, and there was
certainly a mountain of evidence to back it up. Then there was
another strange twist --- a novel Orr wrote about a
firefighter/arsonist that ironically paralleled the true life
events.

Throughout THE FIRE LOVER Wambaugh exhibits his remarkable gift for
reconstructing true crime with all the emotional impact of a great
suspense novel. As an investigative reporter, Wambaugh is
unsurpassed, and like his other nonfiction works, he gives readers
an in-depth education in the history of the case and the
personalities involved. Above all, Wambaugh draws no overt
conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of John Orr because, as he
often reiterates, one niggling fact remains. No one actually saw
Orr set a single fire. The evidence was all circumstantial. And
since Orr has never admitted any responsibility, nor answered the
many questions put to him by investigators, he will probably
continue to remain an enigma. But, regardless of what opinions
you may form by the time you've reached the final page, I'll
make you a wager --- the next time you enter a supermarket or
hardware store, the first thing you're going to look for are the
fire exits.

Reviewed by Ann Bruns on January 21, 2011

The Fire Lover: A True Story
by Joseph Wambaugh

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 006009527X
  • ISBN-13: 9780060095277