Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
Combining the reportage of In Cold Blood with the eye-opening insights of Dreamland, American Fire is a new American tragedy for our time.
Shocked by a five-month arson spree that left a Virginia county reeling, reporter Monica Hesse drove to Accomack to cover the trial of Charlie Smith who pled guilty to 67 counts of arson. But Smith wasn’t lighting fires alone: his crimes were galvanised by a twisted love story. Hesse uncovered the motives of this troubled addict and his accomplice, Tonya Bundick. In depicting the dangerous shift in their passionate relationship, Hesse brings to life the once-thriving coastal community and its distressed inhabitants, decimated by a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. Incorporating this drama into the history of arson in the US, American Fire re-creates the anguished nights of this quiet county lit up in flames, evoking a microcosm of rural America—a land gutted before the fires began.
“Using straightforward prose and well-developed historical context, Hesse makes a story in which very little happens feel urgent and relevant.” — Times Literary Supplement
“A gripping, fast-paced story with an asset that few true crime books have: no body count... the Freudian motivation of the culprits are fascinating.” — The 25 Best True Crime Books Every Person Should Read, Esquire