Fire analysis, I was beginning to understand, is a strange but coherent kind of detective work. It’s subtle and it’s cerebral. It’s almost all inductive reasoning. Or do I mean deductive reasoning? Or both? For one thing, in the course of almost any other criminal investigation, you know beforehand if a crime has been committed. Otherwise, you wouldn’t waste your time poking around where you don’t belong.
But when you’re dealing with a fire, you can’t possibly have even the remotest idea as to whether or not a crime has occurred until after you’ve already investigated the fire scene. When people die, it can be from any number of causes that are non-criminal, non-suspicious. These are what are called “natural causes.” Old age. Shock. Disease. Heart attack. Whatever.
But fire is different. There is no such thing as a “natural” fire. Death, at the end of a long life, is supposed to happen. Fire is never supposed to occur. All fires are aberrations. A house doesn’t get sick and ignite. A car doesn’t feel a pain in its chest and spontaneously combust. A hotel doesn’t go to the doctor to be treated for a little bit of flame. There is no acceptable amount of burning. Therefore, all fires must be viewed as incidents where something went wrong. All fires must be viewed as potential crime scenes.
Whether it was the result of an accident or if the fire had been deliberately set, you always have a corpse to deal with. The corpse of a building, or the corpse of a house, or, as in the case of Stanfield Standish, the corpse of a car. And in our case, our corpse of the automobile contained the corpse of a man inside.
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