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Impressing Arson Investigators and Burning Down the House

The Big Thrill Interviews Lee Goldberg

By R.G. Belsky

Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg Book CoverWhat do you do next when you’re the best-selling author of a popular series like the Eve Ronin books? If you’re Lee Goldberg, you start another series at the same time—which is his highly-acclaimed new thriller MALIBU BURNING. Oh, and he also has a stand-alone thriller coming out in November. Plus, Eve Ronin #5 soon after that.

Wow, talk about being prolific!

“That was not planned,” Goldberg laughed when we asked him about his busy publishing schedule. “It just worked out that way. I have three books coming out within eight weeks of each other.”

The first one, MALIBU BURNING, introduces veteran arson investigator Walter Sharpe and ex-U.S. Marshall Andy Walker as dogged law enforcement officials on the trail of a cunning con man who has come up with an ingenious plan for using raging California wildfires to carry out an epic heist.

Lee Goldberg
© Ron Scarpa

Goldberg, who has personally experienced those Southern California fires as a longtime resident of Calabasas (“fire came right up to our fence”), says readers will find MALIBU BURNING different than his Eve Ronin books.

“I wanted to do a different kind of police procedural. There’s got to be a different kind of procedural. I wanted to write a con man. And for years, I had this idea to use a wildfire to pull off a massive heist.”

Goldberg—a longtime television screenwriter and producer as well as a best-selling thriller author—used his TV/movie background to come up with the idea for the main characters in the book: his two fire investigators and the ingenious con man they are trying to catch in the midst of all the fires.

He describes Walter Sharpe as kind of like “Walter Matthau in Pelham 123,” saying: “He’s an old dog with a crazy jowly face. Sort of like the Columbo or Sherlock Homes of arson investigation. Matthau, Gene Hackman. Not pretty to look at, but he’s the smartest guy around and he knows it. He loves his job and will do it forever.”

His new partner, Andrew Walker, is an aging U.S. marshal—hard-charging, relentless but it’s taken a toll on his body and his marriage.

Bad guys are not always thoroughly bad guys, just because they do a bad thing that doesn’t mean that’s who they are.

“He wants a job where he’ll come home at night, where he’s not being shot at. Arson investigator seems like a safe, simple job. He turns out to be the perfect partner for Sharpe—who is a great genius when it comes to fire detection, but he’s not a man hunter. They both find themselves racing against time to make people realize that this is not a normal fire, it’s something else.”

Lee pickets Paramount

Danny Cole—the man they’re after for setting the Santa Monica mountains ablaze to pull off the biggest heist in U.S. history—is a different kind of villain too.

“He’s a bad guy with a conscience,” Goldberg says. “That’s his fatal flaw. He cons people because they’re not good people, he doesn’t want innocent bystanders hurt. He won’t swindle someone out of their house, but he’ll swindle a drug dealer. In my mind, he’s Brett Maverick, Remington Steel, Thomas Crown, Jim Rockford, or Simon Templar.

“He’s a bad guy, but he’s not a bad person. He has a moral code. He loves more than anything the planning and the pulling off of the heist. He loves the caper even more than the prize at the end. Bad guys are not always thoroughly bad guys, just because they do a bad thing that doesn’t mean that’s who they are.”

Writing MALIBU BURNING presented a few problems for Goldberg.

First, he had recently written about a fire like this in Lost Hills, one of the Eve Ronin books. But he says he decided to “challenge myself” as a writer by using fire as a backdrop to his story again, but in a completely different way. “Instead of running away from it, I will embrace it,” he says he decided. “It made me very excited to know I could write it from a different perspective.”

Lee and Lost Hills Sheriff Jennifer Seeto

And, of course, he had to do extensive research into wildfires and fire investigations, reaching out to an ATF agent and the LA County Sheriff’s department for information on how arsonists set fires.

Amazingly, Goldberg came up with such a clever way to commit arson in the book that it even stunned arson investigators.

“F— you!” he says one investigator told him after they read his idea. “That would work. And we would never be able to detect it.”

But he said the investigators were grateful to him for bringing the idea to their attention so they could detect it in the future. “We like working with writers,” he quoted one of them as saying. “You have imagination and come up with things we would never think about. You force us to think out of the box.”

In addition to publishing more than 40 novels, including a series with Janet Evanovich, Goldberg has had a long and successful career in TV—writing or producing shows like Monk and Diagnosis Murder and, most recently, he co-created the Hallmark movie series Mystery 101.

One of the fascinating things about Goldberg’s writing method—in MALIBU BURNING as well as earlier books—is he starts out writing them as a script, not a novel.

Lee and Bill Rabkin with Dick Van Dyke when they produced DIAGNOSIS MURDER

He began using that technique a few years ago with his thriller True Fiction and it “worked so well now I do it with every book I write.

“I write it as a script for myself. I just get the story out. Then I can look at it. The script works like a very detailed guideline. I have momentum, I have a feel. Every script has its own beat, its own rhythm. If I can find the beat, then it’s much easier to write the book as well.”

Next up for Goldberg is Calico, a standalone about a troubled ex-LAPD female detective who uncovers shocking secrets from the past as she tries to pull her own life together in a small, bleak California desert town.

After that comes Dream Town, a new Eve Ronin novel.

And right now, he is working on the second book in his new series, which is expected to be out in late 2024. “Response has been so great in pre-order so I quickly came up with another Sharpe and Walker. It’s a crossover with Eve Ronin.”


The Big Thrill Interviews Lee Goldberg

R.G. Belsky
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