Firebug: Flame festishes are a thing


When I was 9 or 10 my school burned down — well, part of it did at least. I found from a friend who trotted over to my family home on a weekend to joyfully inform us that some bigger kids had been messing around and it had been destroyed.

I can safely say that this is the most excited I’ve ever been about arson. And even then, upon closer inspection there was something rather sad and haunting about seeing the terrible fire damage wrought upon little desks and chairs.

The Firebug podcast examines the case of fire inspector John Orr, who was convicted of deliberately setting many of the fires he stepped in to “solve” in 1980s California, and also stands accused of getting a sexual kick out of these untoward activities (which he predictably denies).

This is a fascinating story, told carefully and concisely by Kary Antholis, who deftly builds the character of Orr — and outwardly intelligent and highly renowned arson investigator — before introducing listeners to the clues and hunches that ultimately reveal him as an unlikely but prolific fire setter.

Much of the intrigue here comes from two distinct places: the content of Orr’s bizarre self-penned novel “Points of Origin”, which has thinly veiled references to real fires Orr set and a sexually motivated central protagonist clearly based on the inpector himself, and then Antholis’ unique and decades long relationship with Orr, which culminates in a confrontation during which journalist offers the felon his final judgment after years of closely investigating the case.

As humans, I think we’re naturally interested in large scale deceit and the smart operators capable of it — if only that we can learn to recognize it. This is a truly interesting example. If I had any small criticism, it would be that Antholis’ sharp focus on this predator leaves little room for honoring or remembering his victims (Orr was a murderer after all). That said, as a piece of journalism and a study in psychology, Firebug is a great podcast.

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