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Sleuth Goes to Blazes to Nab Arsonists

June 05, 2002|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the dust jacket of Earl Emerson's new thriller, "Vertical Burn" (Ballantine, $24.95, 340 pages), Sue Grafton is quoted as saying it is "the most exciting book I've read in years." Though cover blurbs are generally to be approached with some skepticism, this one you can take to the bank.

Barely has this compelling story begun when Seattle firefighter John Finney and his partner find themselves trapped in a warehouse blaze. Emerson, a seasoned lieutenant in that city's real fire department as well as an award-winning novelist, describes his hero's predicament in such chilling, utterly convincing detail that readers may wind up struggling to breathe along with Finney as he tries to break free from the smoke and flames. As is the case with the best suspense fiction, the fireman escapes only to find himself in hotter water.

Though no charges are made against him, he's being blamed unofficially by his superiors and his fellow firefighters for panicking and causing his partner's death. Like many another unjustly accused protagonist, he begins to sift through the ashes of the fatality. Each sooty clue brings him one step closer to The Big Answer, but it also places him in greater jeopardy. That's part of the proven thriller formula too.

What gives "Burn" a special glow are Emerson's flair for storytelling (proved time and again in a pair of successful series featuring private detective Thomas Black and fireman-sheriff Mac Fontana) and his real-life experience under fire. Not only has he come up with several ingeniously incendiary setbacks for Finney, including an airtight frame for murder and arson, he also forces the self-styled sleuth to gather his information by stepping into a series of roaring fires so stunningly depicted that you can feel the heat and smell the acrid smoke.

The author saves the best for last, with the bruised and beaten but unbowed Finney racing through a high-rise inferno, struggling to evacuate trapped innocents while being stalked by a cadre of arsonist-killers. Exciting barely covers it.

Ex-Con Heroine Is

Drawn Into More Trouble

Five books ago, Barbara Seranella introduced Miranda "Munch" (for Munchkin) Mancini, a unique series protagonist--a former prostitute and addict (booze and heroin), fresh from prison. Since then, Munch has struggled to put her life in order. With each novel, set in the early to mid-1980s, she's moved closer to that goal, maintaining sobriety, establishing herself as an expert car mechanic and the owner-operator of a limousine for hire and experiencing the joys of single motherhood.

Her main roadblocks have been companions from the past, mainly bad, who've drawn her into situations that have tested her cleverness, physical endurance and resolve to stay straight. One of her closest pals, a hard-boiled, wig-addicted ex-con named Ellen Summers, popped up in "Unwanted Company" (2000) to complicate a caper involving a rogue CIA agent and a series of murders. In the new "No Man Standing" (Scribner, $24, 304 pages), Ellen returns, released from prison to a world made even more hostile than usual by an assortment of uglies willing to torture and destroy for the fortune she hid before her last arrest.

She doesn't hesitate to draw Munch and her daughter into her dangerous circle. Munch needs no more badness; she's already being stalked by the semi-psychotic mother of one of her daughter's friends. But that problem soon pales besides finger-breaking thugs, suspicious cops and double-dealing feds.

Seranella's strong suit is her ability to view life in an unconventional, believably streetwise manner. A bristling attitude of unrelenting suspicion permeates the novels. Munch doesn't just meet people, she sizes them up. She senses as well as sees, not that what she senses always helps her. She's aware of what a self-serving, self-deceiving twit Ellen is, but she still likes her. And because of the author's ability to create raffish characters in full without feeling the need to excuse their bad behavior, against our better nature, we tend to like her too.

New Commander on Spot

as Scams Lead to Murder

Anyone in the mood for a fresh and slightly offbeat police procedural should immediately investigate Elizabeth Gunn's "Seventh-Inning Stretch" (Walker, $23.95, 219 pages). The setting is the normally peaceful town of Rutherford, Minn. The hero is a no-nonsense lawman named Jake Hines who, after four previous outings, has been promoted to chief of detectives.

Here, he's trying to adjust to the administrative side of crime-busting--justifying his staff selections to his superior, closing out cold cases and establishing working procedures--when a group of con artists hits town. The scams eventually lead to grim murder, putting the pressure on Hines and his crew.

First-person narration is unusual in police tales, especially when the story involves ensemble activity. But Gunn's decision to let us see his crew through Jake's eyes is a sound one. The crime story is tricky, involving a member of Jake's team. And the subplot, in which Hines and his significant other, a crime lab technician named Trudy Hanson, struggle to make their new fixer-upper farmhouse livable adds a nice personal balance to the mix.

Dick Lochte, author of the prize-winning novel "Sleeping Dog," and its sequel, "Laughing Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other Wednesday.

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