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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.
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 i...
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 s...
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. A friend had seen them first: he'd pulled out of Deborah's dirt drive after dinner and then frantically banged on her door a few minutes later, yelling, 'œHey'”the house across the field is on fire.' The field was small and rough and it had corn sometimes, with stalks that shook like paper, but it didn't have corn this time of year, On the night of November 12, 2012, it had nothing but brown grass, the burning house, and the flames rolling in Clark's direction.
Clark's niece lived next door, in a place that looked the same as Clark's and most of the other homes on that stretch of Virginia road: a pastel double-wide, well-maintained but sinking, each plunked along a tight squeeze of a two-lane route. Now Clark ran to warn her niece about the burning house, which had been different from the others: it was fancy, two stories, white paint, hardwoods, generations of the same family living and dying and moving in and out, until finally somebody moved out and nobody moved in. Clark couldn't remember the last time anyone had lived in that house. She knew it didn't have working power.
Clark ran back to her own house and picked up the telephone. By the time the 911 dispatcher answered at 10:41pm, Clark had determined that electrostatic anomalies aside, there was really only one likely possibility for what had happened.