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Product of a Society at Risk

Books: '80s cases of Tylenol tampering and repressed memory syndrome inspired Los Alamitos author Martin J. Smith's thriller.

March 16, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A trip to the supermarket isn't quite what it used to be for Martin J. Smith.

More than a decade has passed since the Tylenol poisonings of seven people in Chicago, and great strides have been made in tamper-resistant packaging. But how difficult would it be for some sicko to inject poison through the lid of a yogurt container? How safe is that carton of milk in the refrigerator? Or that innocent-looking slice of salami?

While writing "Time Release," his debut suspense thriller, the Los Alamitos author couldn't help feeling the same paranoia as his psychologist protagonist, who is hired to help solve a series of product-tampering murders.

"I think we all live with the illusion of security, and, until something like a Tylenol case happens, we don't even think about it," Smith says.

"There is literally nothing between a beefsteak and a syringe full of poison except a micron of that cellophane covering," he says. "It's creepy. Walking through the aisle of any grocery store with that in mind makes you realize how vulnerable our grocery supply really is."

Set in Pittsburgh, "Time Release" (Jove Books; $5.99) opens with veteran police detective Grady Downing listening to a tape of a 911 call from a terrified young boy whose mother has just eaten a spoonful of cyanide-laced yogurt. It's 10 years after the first in a wave of Pittsburgh product-tampering deaths, and Downing, the original investigator in the case, is convinced his prime suspect in the earlier crimes is at it again.

Though he never had enough evidence to make an arrest, Downing believes the suspect's 22-year-old son witnessed critical details of the crimes as a child but has repressed those memories.

A frustrated Downing decides to go after the young man's memories. He enlists the help of the book's main character, psychologist Jim Christensen, a repressed-memory expert and widowed father of two daughters who ultimately become targets of the killer.

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Early reviews are strong: the Kansas City Star says it's "a suspenseful ride that doesn't let up until the very end"; Publishers Weekly calls it "a good creepy debut novel."

Smith, 40, is a former newspaper reporter who has been editor of Orange Coast magazine since 1994. He moved to Orange County in 1985 from his hometown of Pittsburgh.

He decided to try his hand at fiction in the late '80s. Signing up for a fiction writing class offered by UC Irvine Extension in 1989, he went on to complete his first manuscript--a political satire he was unable to sell.

Smith says "Time Release" grew out of "a weird convergence of things that were going on in the early '90s."

One was the 10th anniversary of the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, "which struck me as one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time. You never had a suspect, never had a motive. It seemed very ripe for fictionalizing that case. The sheer randomness of it, I thought, was really terrifying."

The second source of inspiration, Smith says, was the rash of repressed-memory prosecutions in the late '80s and early '90s, including a controversial case in San Jose in which a daughter remembered her father murdering her playmate two decades earlier. The father's conviction was overturned on appeal.

"The one that really sticks in my mind was the McMartin [Pre-School child molestation] case, which proved so vividly that memories are these malleable, easily manipulated things," Smith says. These cases "are not only subject to error but misinterpretation by a therapist, or manipulation as in this case [in his novel] by an investigator.

" 'Time Release' affirms the possibility that memory repression is real, but there is a twist at the end that makes you realize how badly wrong they can be."

Unlike most first-time authors who write a novel and then try to sell it to a publisher, Smith sold "Time Release" on the basis of a synopsis. But the 60-page summary wasn't something Smith dashed off over a couple of weekends.

He spent two years working "fairly steadily, just getting the story right. By contrast, the [actual] book took me eight months to write."

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By devoting so much time on the synopsis, Smith says, he already had worked out a lot of the kinks in the story by the time he sold it.

Smith says one publisher offered him a hardback deal within a week of submission. Instead, he and his agent accepted a two-book soft-cover deal from Berkley Publishing Group, which published "Time Release" under its Jove Books imprint.

"We decided I'm a nobody basically--an unknown name," says Smith, who reasons that as a first-time author "you've got to get people to give you a try. A hardback at $25 does nothing but discourage people to take a chance. My goal is to build an audience." Smith turned in his second completed novel--it deals with Alzheimer's disease--to Jove last month. Although he had no intention of writing a series, the second book, due out next year, will also feature psychologist Jim Christensen.

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