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All booksTrue crimeAmerican Fire
American Fire by Monica Hesse
True crime

American Fire

by Monica Hesse

Quick take

American Fire has a larger scope than just arson, and the story Hesse tells is grander than a simple crime spree plaguing a small town.

Why I love it

Elizabeth Kiefer
Refinery 29

I have a confession to make: Over the last few years, I have become obsessed with true crime. From Serial to Making a Murderer and The People v. O.J. Simpson, it’s become my go-to genre. But the fixation really started more than a decade ago, when I was introduced to a book that remains among my top recommendations to this day: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—a work of reportage and suspense that is truly in a league of its own.

Well, at least it used to be. As of this summer, American Fire joins that league, too.

In American Fire, journalist Monica Hesse takes us on a journey to Accomack County, Virginia, where just a few years ago someone was burning down (mostly abandoned) buildings and houses, night after night, with no sign of stopping. Volunteer firefighters slept at the stations; citizen detectives patrolled the rural Virginia town from dusk to dawn, hoping to catch the pyromaniac in action, roaming around in the darkness. 'œSome people light things on fire because they feel like they have to,' Hesse writes early on in the book, long before the case is even close to being cracked.

But of course, American Fire has a larger scope than just arson, and the story Hesse tells is grander than a simple crime spree plaguing a small town. It’s about the struggles of a community in the aftermath of the recession—one that was already half-wrecked before a single fire began to burn—and the impact it had on the people who live there. It’s also a story about desperation and a Bonnie & Clyde-esque love affair that is almost literally aflame, and about how love can make you do crazy, dangerous things.

Most importantly, American Fire is an astonishing work of journalism that I love for the same reasons that I was first mesmerized by In Cold Blood. While reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about how many hours Hesse must have spent reporting this book—the dozens of people she talked to, the many notebooks she must have gone through, how long it took to fact check down to the tiniest detail. From a journalist's-eye view, this book is a masterpiece; from a literary perspective, American Fire is one of the best examples of storytelling that has come our way in a damned long time.

Either way: You’re going to want this one on your bookshelf. It’s not just stranger than fiction. It’s better, because it’s all true.

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The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all.

The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie’s confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn’t lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Though it’s hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it’s been drained of its industry'”agriculture'”as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity.

A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America'”a land half gutted before the fires even began.

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Member thoughts

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All (3196)
Love (1168)
Like (1719)
Dislike (309)
3372 ratings
  • 35% Love
  • 51% Like
  • 9% Dislike
  • Hamlin, TX

    Didnt like at first. When starting this book i didn't realize it was based on true story till i saw the pictures when i dropped the book! Loved the book after that!! Loved that if focused on the town!

  • Hoboken, NJ

    The context the author gives to the crime makes this book the winner it is. The way the back story is woven into this story is well executed; this book has sparked my interest in the true crime genre.

  • Birmingham, AL

    This non-fiction novel provides a unique insight to a string of arsons in a small town in Virgina and how it impacted the community. If you like S-Town, then this is the arsonist crime version of it.

  • Oak Brook, IL

    Warning: the first chapters are dry. Not sure the author needed to open with a too-lengthy history of the area. This changes when she moves into present day. Last 85% of book is like an intense novel.

  • Chicago, IL

    This was so much more than I expected it to be. Covering the history of the county,through each part of the investigation and trial, it covers so much and is incredibly interesting. Really enjoyed it!

  • Elmont , NY

    Nonfiction is not my usual genre. While I love reading newspapers and magazines, I can't remember the last time I read a booklength work of nonfiction. I loved this book. It's well written, worthwhile

  • Beaverton, OR

    This book had me rooting for a person that was seriously flawed. But it stirred empathy in a way that reminds us that we have to look beyond the surface and think of how circumstances impact behavior.

  • Houston, TX

    Great truth is stranger than fiction crime story. The author did a great job of bringing to life a forgotten corner of the country. I liked that the mystery wasn’t who committed the arsons but why.

  • Frederick, MD

    True crime nonfiction that paints a picture of the places & people involved in a way that really lets you get a feeling for everything that happened. I'd read more from this author without hesitation.

  • Pittsboro, NC

    This reporter went to such great lengths to research this case, these arsons, this town and these people. I loved the timeline of the book and the detail with which the fires and trial were described!

  • Salisbury, MD

    I live in the region, so it was especially interesting. Compelling telling of the story and the people. On a greater stage, the story of another forgotten region and marginalized people in the country


    LOVED. The journalistic research that went into this book was incredible. It did not sway you one way or another and gave you all information. I absolutely loved this book and will read more by Hesse.

  • Denver, CO

    Yay for great non-fiction! This author took a story we already knew the ending of, and yet still wove a tale that kept me quickly turning pages. It also was an interesting commentary on rural America.

  • Brighton , MA

    Excellent true crime read. Loved that Hesse provided so much insight into the minds of the culprits and the minds of the community as a whole. I wish there had been a map of the fires and more photos!

  • Monroeville , PA

    Every once in awhile a book comes along that I truly love. Monica Hesse is a terrific writer. I'm so excited to have found an author who I will follow and look forward to reading more of her writings.

  • Fishkill, NY

    5 out of 5 stars. Heartbreaking that this is a reality for some counties in America. A well constructed novel with natural twists and turns, American Fire proves truth really is stranger than fiction.

  • Sanford , FL

    I loved it. It was a different kind of romance/crime story than what I have been exposed to. I truly loved every minute I spent learning about the complexities of relationships/crime. All in 1 combo!

  • Evansville, IN

    A matter-of-fact read that in its straightforwardness depicts the history and heartbreak and reality of a small southern town, its small joys and huge struggles. A witty and engaging history lesson!

  • Cincinnati, OH

    Someone wrote it best when they described this book not as a Whodunit, but rather a Whydoneit. Hesse set the stage of this rural life perfectly and gave each character ample time to steal your heart.

  • Fayetteville , NC

    Monica Hesse wrote the true tale of a small town burning with such a light hearted thought provoking talent that you can't help but fall in love and care for everyone involved. Surprisingly wonderful

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