As rural America empties out, houses that were once homes make the sad transition to abandoned buildings. Virginia’s Accomack County, once the wealthiest rural county in the nation, had 800 such forelorn structures in November 2012. Months later, 70 of them had gone up in flames, one at a time, always at night.
The arson investigation takes in a lot. But the propulsive pleasure of American Fire rests in author Monica Hesse’s decision not to force a thing. The book has the brisk diligence of big-city journalism (Hesse writes for the Washington Post) and the languid chattiness of the small town where she lived while researching it. One chapter begins, “Arson is a weird crime.” Another is titled “What Happened Next.”
And you want to know. The culprits are revealed up front: two locals locked in a lopsided love affair. The mystery is why they did it. Hesse gathers the pieces but leaves connections to the reader. When they snap together, the feeling is a bit like gazing upon a blaze you’ve just lit.
This appears in the June 12, 2017 issue of TIME.