Deborah Clark reported the first fire one cold November night when she looked out her back door and saw flames blooming in an abandoned house nearby. Down the road a few hours later there was a second fire, then a third, then a fourth—the beginning of a five-month, 86-count arson spree that paralyzed the residents of Virginia’s rural, desolate Eastern Shore.
The area, once home to prosperous farmers and bustling coastal villages, had attracted plenty of tourists, many of whom stayed at the famous Whispering Pines resort. But over the decades, one economic downturn after another pummeled Accomack County. By the time the fires started in 2012, the fancy hotel was long closed and the population had plummeted. The folks who still called Accomack home were a tight-knit bunch who scratched out livings as best they could, often at one of the Tyson or Perdue chicken farms dotting the countryside. At first it was hard for investigators to believe that one of these locals was setting all the fires. Given the remoteness of the Eastern Shore, though, there really wasn’t any other possibility.
But Hesse’s book isn’t about finding the culprits, unmasked at the outset as an auto mechanic and his girlfriend. It’s about trying to understand the combination of social and personal pressures that led the pair to crisscross the county like a sort of Bonnie and Clyde, dousing rags and lighting matches. Hesse, who covered the arsons for The Washington Post, is an ace reporter, but she’s an even better storyteller. American Fire is as propulsive as a crime thriller. A-
“It was cold and dry, and Deborah Clark found herself wondering, briefly, whether the dryness was important. Fire had to come from somewhere, and if the dry ground had caused an electrostatic spark, then that would explain why, less than a hundred yards from her back steps, there were giant orange flames licking the night sky.”