Ever since I inhaled the S-Town podcast in two days, I’ve been looking to recapture that weird, can’t-look-away fascination I felt as I listened to John B. McLemore’s story unfold. American Fire comes pretty dang close.
The basic story is this: a few years ago, someone started lighting abandoned buildings in Accomack County, Virginia on fire. It’s a rural enough area that the fire departments are all volunteer outfits, staffed by people who have to get up and go to their day jobs after fighting fires all night. And whoever this arsonist was, they were prolific, sometimes setting multiple blazes per night, until it started to seem like the entire county would burn to the ground before the guilty party was caught.
I don’t read a lot of true crime because I don’t have the stomach for it, but as the daughter of a fire chief, I found myself curious about the story behind the fires in Accomack and what would drive a person to burn down empty buildings night after night. Journalist Monica Hesse unfolds the story in a way that reminded me of S-Town—there are layers to the people involved and the problems they have. As you might expect, there’s no single, easy answer waiting to be revealed at the end, but in a way that’s what makes it satisfying.
Highly recommended, especially if you have an investigative spirit and enjoy probing the dark corners of other people’s minds.