Burning With Suspense


Review of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse

New York: Liveright, 2017

In a 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock expounded on the differences between mystery, surprise, and suspense. Mystery, Hitchcock said, generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion. Although the whodunit is a respectable genre that involves “solving intellectual puzzles,” it was not his metier. Hitchcock cared even less for scenes of surprise, in which “Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’” The audience might get fifteen seconds of engagement, but it is ultimately little more than a sudden shock. Except in the most limited circumstances – “when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story” – he had little use for surprises. 

Suspense, of course, was Hitchcock’s forte. As he explained to Truffaut, suspense is “the most powerful means of holding on to the viewer’s attention” because generates rising emotions – such as excitement, anxiety, or even fear – as the audience watches an event unfold over an extended period of time. Suspense is fascinating because the audience identifies with the character and therefore participates in the scene – sharing apprehension and perhaps even longing to shout a warning, while anticipating the inevitable resolution of the situation without knowing precisely how or when it will come about. “The conclusion,” says Hitchcock, is that “whenever possible, the public must be informed.” As he is sometimes paraphrased, suspense is knowing what is going to happen.

Alfred Hitchcock would have appreciated Monica Hesse’s new book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land. It is the true story of a series of arson fires in Accomack County, on Virginia’s mostly rural Eastern Shore, which Hesse initially covered as a reporter for the Washington Post. Wasting no time, she gives away the ending on the first page of the Preface – in fact, on the inside jacket. So we know from the outset that Charlie Smith pled guilty to setting sixty-seven fires, all in abandoned buildings, and that he confessed to the crimes shortly after he was apprehended. The book is highly suspenseful, however, because we still need to find out just how Charlie was finally caught in a remarkable spree that extended over five months and, more importantly, why he did it.

When the fires began in late 2012, Accomack County had been in economic retreat for decades. Businesses had closed, tourism had dried up, and the population had steadily declined since its high point in 1910. From 2000 to 2010 alone, the population had fallen by over 13%, leaving more than 800 abandoned houses, barns, and other buildings, including the once-grand Whispering Pines Hotel. 

No one was immediately suspicious when the first building – an empty house on a block of double-wide trailers – began to burn on November 12, but two more went up in flames later that same evening, and three more were torched the following night. By the early morning of November 14, the conclusion was obvious: “We’ve got an arsonist.” (P. 27) 

At that point, Hesse’s readers already know, as the authorities do not, that the culprit is Charlie Smith, a recovering drug addict and ex-convict who had done prison time for forgery. Readers may not easily relate to Charlie, but as Hitchcock explained, “apprehension . . . is more powerful than the feelings of sympathy or dislike for the characters involved.”

By 2012, in any case, Charlie seemed to be getting his life in order, living with his new girlfriend and her two young children, and holding a responsible job as an auto mechanic. As Hesse describes Charlie’s life, he had found “a parable of love in Accomack County, a modern romance of limited budgets and modest expectations and the simplest of pleasures.” (P. 88.)

There was no apparent reason for Charlie to return to crime let alone arson, but the fires kept coming. Over the next five months, there would be a total of eighty-six fires in Accomack County, ignited at a rate of more than one every other day. The local sheriff’s office was soon overwhelmed, and the investigation was turned over to the state police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, whose agents devoted over 26,000 hours -- almost 15,000 of them overtime – to the case. (P. 135.)

We never see Charlie setting the fires, so we don’t know how or why he keeps doing it, much less how he manages to keep evading the law. Instead, Hesse follows the investigation, sharing the bafflement of the police as they try to solve, or prevent, the crime wave. They try everything: stakeouts, hidden cameras, door-to-door interviews, networking, questionnaires, rewards, psychological profiling, and geographic triangulation, but nothing works. Suspense mounts as we keep in mind that Charlie will somehow be arrested, but so does frustration as the various cops keep getting stumped. After only the first month of fires, Hesse tells us, they began “to wonder if they were dealing with some kind of fucking criminal mastermind.” (P. 34.) It would only get worse.

Hesse is a fine writer with an outstanding sense of pacing and drama. We see, for example, the sense of urgency among the responders every time a new fire is reported:

“Son of a bitch,” Baily yelled, pulling on his clothes even as he speed-dialed Neal. “It’s rolling right now!” he said, grabbing his truck keys and hauling ass back up Route 13. In the truck, he got Sheriff Godwin on the radio, who was already en route himself, closing in on Church road from the other direction. Was tonight the night? Were they finally going to catch him? (P. 110.)

We also learn about life in Accomack County, which lies at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, separated from the rest of Virginia -- geographically by Chesapeake Bay and culturally by decades of relative isolation. Descendants of old families, some dating back centuries, are called Born Heres. Newer residents, known as Come Heres, can sometimes graduate to Been Heres if they stay long enough and learn to fit in.

The firefighters in Accomack are all volunteers, who run themselves ragged answering multiple calls every week, and sometimes every night. Their dedication never flags, as many of them take to sleeping in the firehouses even though it means separation from friends and families. Even before the rash of arsons, they were constantly short on funds and equipment, and sometimes even water – there are no hydrants in Accomack, so they have to haul it around in tankers. In addition to firefighting, they also had to raise the money for new equipment and supplies, which was the worst part of the job:

For all of the myriad reasons that young men and women set out to join fire departments – excitement, public service, community, a sense of duty – it was difficult to believe that any of them would have cited, as a primary reason, “bake sale.” (P. 64.)

Hesse’s acuity falters only now and then. She repeats unskeptically the law enforcement assumptions that “a majority of arsonists have IQs below the range considered normal” and that it is “common for arsonists to return to the scenes of their fires.” (Pp. 45, 74.) That might be true of the arsonists who get caught – they are no doubt among the dumber and more predictable ones – but there cannot be any reliable information about the arsonists who successfully remain at large.

Charlie is predictable only in the sense that he kept torching abandoned buildings, including the once-iconic Whispering Pines Hotel, which went up in a spectacular blaze on March 12, 2013. It was the sixty-sixth fire, and it happened on the four month anniversary of the beginning of the spree. There would be twenty more fires before Charlie was caught the following month, but I won’t ruin the suspense by revealing how it happened.

As to Charlie’s motivation, which is disclosed only near the end of the book, let’s just say that it comes as the sort of surprise that would earn Hitchcock’s approval. It is complex and fascinating, with a denouement that provides far more than fifteen seconds of engagement, and it even explains why Charlie declined to plead guilty to every single fire.

Hesse made the right choice when she opted for suspense over mystery in telling the story of the Accomack fires. Any other choice would have left her readers lost, as they sifted possible clues along with the actual investigators. Or worse, the narrative could have descended, as Arnold Toynbee might have put it, into just one damned fire after another. We are so much better off knowing that Charlie did it all along, and wondering when the cops themselves would figure it all out.

Posted on 14 August 2017

STEVEN LUBET is the Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He is the author of Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters, forthcoming this fall from the Oxford University Press. The quotes from Alfred Hitchcock can be found in Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut, pages 72-73.