by Jessica Kaye, audiobook producer and director
Thanks to Penguin Random House audio producer Aaron Blank, I was hired to direct Rebecca Lowman’s masterful audiobook narration of Burned by Edward Humes. Burned is the true story of a young mother, Jo Ann Parks, whose three small children perished in a fire that rapidly consumed the converted garage apartment in which they lived. Suspicion was thrown on her for a number of reasons, including testimony, later discredited, from a disgruntled former neighbor and the sense that a mother truly in mourning would be more openly emotional than Parks. Combine that with the family history of a home fire a year earlier, in a different apartment, and the police thought they had found the source of the blaze—maternal arson, a deliberate crime.
As I began reading Burned, I thought of my brother-in-law, John Lentini. John, a tall, keenly intelligent man with a low-key demeanor, is a leading expert on arson. His work has helped to create a new understanding of burn patterns formerly believed to be proof of arson but that are now known to occur in accidental fires as well. His knowledge of what arson does and does not look like has contributed to essential testimony in a number of court cases—including his work with The Innocence Project. He has also provided essential information to thousands of other people through speaking engagements and his own book, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation, now in its third edition.
I wondered if Edward and John knew each other and almost emailed John to ask that very question. “Hold on,” I told myself. The first step would be to check whether he was mentioned in the book. Working from an electronic manuscript made it easy to search for his name. There it was, more than once. Again I considered emailing John, but still hesitated. What if the author’s comments about him were less than kind? If so, I would have to decline to direct the book. No, it was too soon to send an email. I had to read Burned in its entirety before letting anyone know about my personal connection to it.
As I read, I felt relief to see the high esteem in which Edward Humes holds John. I would not have to abandon the project! At last, I allowed myself to tell my brother-in-law about our shared connection to Burned. Sometimes small worlds come together between the pages of a book or within a pair of headphones and this was one of those times. It was an unexpected thrill to work on an audiobook that features someone in my family. If the project had been offered to another director, I might never have known about John’s important contribution to Parks’ defense.
Listen to an audio clip of Burned:
Narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Burned is a powerful investigation into both the 1989 house fire that claimed the lives of Jo Ann Parks’s children and the evolving forensic understanding of arson in the 21st century.
Jessica Kaye is an entertainment and publishing attorney at Kaye & Mills and a Grammy Award-winning audiobook producer. She serves on the boards of the Audio Publishers Association and the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Jessica owns Big Happy Family, LLC, an audiobook distributor. She created and co-edited the anthology Meeting Across the River (Bloomsbury USA, 2005) and contributed stories to Occupied Earth (Polis Books, 2015) and Culprits (Polis Books, 2018). Jessica is also the author of the upcoming book, The Guide to Audiobooks (F+W Media/Writers Digest Books, 2019).