Review: Wambaugh explores case of firefighter turned serial arsonist

Joseph Wambaugh, a former detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, is best-known for the gritty police tales he created in "The New Centurions," "Blue Knight," "The Onion Field" and "Choirboys."

He switches gears for "Fire Lover," his first book in six years, focusing on Glendale, Calif., fire Capt. John Orr, a serial arsonist whose deadly skill plagued central and Southern California in the late 1980s.

Orr was an enemy within who went undetected for years � though there were clear signs of his troubled psyche � even writing a novel about a character exactly like himself.

"Everybody loves a fireman," Orr wrote.

Not this one.

His is a chilling tale, and an unwittingly controversial one in these post-Sept. 11 days: Orr was anything but the kind of hero we have come to associate with firefighters since last year's terrorist attacks.

This troubled firefighter set a series of blazes that did millions of dollars in damage to retail stores and homes beginning in 1986, when four people died at Ole's Home Center in South Pasadena.

Wambaugh opens the book with a frightening, moment-by-moment account of the Ole's fire, where the blaze is ignited by what will become the arsonist's signature delay device: a tan filter-tipped cigarette burning down until it reached three matches and a sheet of yellow paper.

The speed and intensity of the blaze was fueled by polyurethane material at the store � also found in bedding material at retail stores that were subsequently and inexplicably torched � giving rise to the name investigators gave the arsonist: the Pillow Pyro.

With a detached, noir reality that gave Wambaugh's police stories such power and punch, Wambaugh explains how Orr wanted nothing more than to be a police officer. He was rejected by the LAPD, whose psychological testing found him unsuitable. Unable to get a job with the Los Angeles Fire Department, he settled for a lower-paying, less prestigious firefighting job in Glendale.

The rejections angered him, but didn't squelch Orr's compulsive need to be a police officer. He held a security job at a department store even while firefighting, delighted with the "hunt" for shoplifters.

Wambaugh explains that Orr got about equal shares of praise and punishment for his sleuthing: One fistfight with a prominent real estate broker cost the city of Glendale an out-of-court settlement.

"With everyone around him getting exhausted by his antics, John decided that there might be something wrong with his approach to citation writing, and maybe he needed to learn how real cops did it, so he asked permission to do ride-alongs with the Glendale police, and was told, yes yes, anything to prevent future punch-outs and lawsuits," Wambaugh writes.

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