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Good Nights Pay Off in the Light of Day for 'Irene' Author : Novelist: Jan Burke, who grew up in Garden Grove and Los Alamitos, wrote her first mystery in the evenings after work and ended up with a three-book contract.

March 18, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Jan Burke was sitting in a small club in West L.A. when a group of "good-sized folks" got up to dance. After watching them a few seconds Burke turned to her husband, Tim, and said, "I just thought of the best first line for a novel."

The line was, "He loved to watch fat women dance."

At the time, Burke, the thirtysomething manager of an energy-related manufacturing plant in Cypress, had already decided she didn't want to wind up being "90 years old and saying to myself, 'I wonder if I have a book in me?' "

And, as she told her husband, "If a line that intriguing--like 'If you build it, they will come'--is not a good line to start out with, something's wrong with me."

As it turns out, "He loved to watch fat women dance" is indeed the first line in Burke's debut novel, "Goodnight, Irene" (Simon & Schuster; $18), a fast-paced mystery Publishers Weekly says "brims with brutality. . . . (Burke) writes with remarkable sensitivity about the physical and spiritual reactions of people terrorized by cold-blooded killers."

Set in Las Piernas, a fictional Southern California beach town "just south of L.A," "Goodnight, Irene" is the first in a proposed series of novels whose title character, Irene Kelly, is a strong-willed and resilient former newspaper reporter now unhappily working in public relations. Single and living in a vintage California bungalow with her 19-pound ankle-biting tomcat, Irene is, as she says, "nearing the final approach to 40, landing gear down."

The man who "loves to watch fat women dance" is Irene's best friend and mentor O'Connor, an old-school newspaperman who happens to be the former father-in-law of Irene's older sister.

As the novel opens, Irene and O'Connor are sitting in their favorite hangout drinking until midnight. The next morning O'Connor, still hung over and in his robe, is killed by a bomb left on his front porch. And within hours Irene is nearly killed in her own living room by a drive-by shooter while talking to homicide detective Frank Harriman, an old friend from her days as a rookie crime beat reporter.

Could the bomb and the shooting have anything to do with Handless Hannah, a 1950s-era case involving an anonymous pregnant woman who was brutally murdered and mutilated beyond recognition? It's a 35-year-old mystery that had become an obsession with O'Connor, who never gave up trying to solve it.

Burke, who grew up in Garden Grove and Los Alamitos and now lives in Long Beach, said the fictional town of Las Piernas is a combination of Long Beach and Laguna Beach with parts of Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach thrown in.

"I sort of borrowed all along the coast," said Burke, 39, who prefers the advantages of using a fictional setting over reality, from being able to create her own style of city government and police department to the town's topography: the size of Long Beach combined with the hills and cliffs of Laguna.

Burke, who majored in history at Cal State Long Beach in the '70s, said her only previous writing experience was writing song lyrics, a screenplay and several short stories--all written "primarily for my own amusement or to pass around to my friends."

After her nightclub inspiration--and "gentle but persistent encouragement" from her husband--Burke "went home and wrote a first chapter. When I reached the end of it, I did at that point what a lot of new writers do: I got scared and said, 'Who do I think I am? I'm no Hemingway.' "

She said she overcame her self-consciousness after deciding to write the kind of entertaining mystery she enjoys reading, and then by simply telling the story.

After taking time out to do research on law enforcement, the 1950s era of the Handless Hannah murder, and fluoride (one of the keys to solving the Hannah mystery), Burke would come home from work and spend her evenings writing until past midnight.

"Once I got going," she said, "it probably took me about eight months to write."

It helped, she acknowledges, that she had previously taken a screenwriting class and a short story class at Cal State Long Beach.

"I think each in their way helped me," she said. "Screenwriting is good because people need to visualize what you're talking about. I think 'Goodnight, Irene' ended up being a fairly visual book because of that."

And, she said, the short story class was helpful "in some of the more traditional ways, just in terms of helping get past some of the clumsiness I may have had in my writing before then and in short stories you have to get your ideas across quickly."

If Burke wrote her first novel relatively quickly, the speed with which she sold the book will probably put her on fledgling first-time novelists' "hit lists," she said jokingly.

It seems she sent her completed manuscript to a woman--the daughter of some friends of her husband's parents--who works in the advertising department at Simon & Schuster.

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