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Barbara Seranella, 50; ex-auto mechanic wrote mystery novels that drew on her hard-living past

January 24, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Seranella, a former Brentwood auto mechanic who became a best-selling author of a series of mystery novels featuring a woman auto-mechanic protagonist with an unsavory past, has died. She was 50.

Seranella, a resident of Laguna Beach and La Quinta, died of liver disease Sunday while awaiting a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, said her husband, Ron.

"We went there Dec. 6 with the hope of getting a liver," he said Tuesday, "but the window of opportunity never appeared."

Seranella introduced Miranda "Munch" Mancini -- a young ex-con prostitute who attempts to rid her life of drugs, booze and her biker buddies after becoming involved in a murder investigation and assuming a new identity as a car mechanic -- in "No Human Involved," which reached No. 5 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list in 1997.

"It's a first of its kind, a hyper-modern mystery totally different than anything written before by a woman," Sheldon McArthur of the Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood told The Times in 1997.

Unlike other crime-solving mystery heroines such as Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski or Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, who "are on the right side of the law," McArthur said, Seranella's Munch Mancini "is an anti-heroine, on the law's wrong side. She's closer to a male villain than a good guy. Yet you wind up rooting for her, although you would not invite her home for dinner."

Seven more Seranella mysteries featuring Munch (short for Munchkin) Mancini and chronicling her personal progress followed, most recently "An Unacceptable Death," published in 2006.

"What I think makes her stories unique," said Patricia McFall, an author and writing instructor who knew Seranella, "is that she has a character with a past that won't go away. So anytime a so-called pal shows up, it's because they got out of prison or got into trouble. And she's always fighting to stay on the high moral ground that she has brought into her life and keep from falling back into a kind of drug-filled, crime-filled life."

In creating that gritty life, Seranella didn't have to dig too deep.

Barbara Shore was born April 30, 1956, in Santa Monica and raised in Pacific Palisades. Her parents assumed she'd go to college, as did her two older brothers.

Instead, while she was in the ninth grade at Paul Revere Junior High School, she ran away from home at 14.

"All I know is I got into liquor and drugs and underwent a complete personality change," she said in a 1997 interview with The Times.

She headed to San Francisco, where she lived on the streets and was frequently picked up by the police.

After joining a hippie commune in Haight-Ashbury, she increased her drug intake -- and learned her future trade.

"The cutest guys in the commune, the ones who had all the money and all the fun, were into fixing cars," she recalled.

Her parents, who had hired private investigators in an unsuccessful attempt to find her, finally tracked her down in San Francisco when she was 16 but were unable to get her to return home.

At 17, she recalled, she began "using the needle and doing heroin."

She spent time riding with the Heathens motorcycle gang, and by 21 she had been jailed 13 times.

She said it wasn't until she was confined to a cell at Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Los Angeles and facing a major sentence that she decided it was time to make a change.

Her father hired a lawyer, who, according to The Times' account, managed to consolidate the various charges against her and win her probation.

In turning her life around, she became an auto mechanic: five years at an Arco station in Sherman Oaks and 12 years at a Texaco station at Barrington and Sunset in Brentwood.

She met her husband, a former Brentwood gas station owner, when he became the station's new silent partner in the early '90s.

"The first day I met her, she was putting a clutch in a Toyota," he recalled. "I had been in business myself and had women work for me, but I'd never had a woman mechanic. I was really impressed with her."

He made her service manager. And after they were married in 1994, she recalled in the 1997 interview, he told her that "he didn't want me hauling engines out of cars when I'm 50 years old. He asked what did I want to do with the rest of my life?"

Recalling the thrill she had in having a short story published in Easyriders magazine -- "Biker Wedding" by Crazy Barbara -- in 1977, she told him she'd like to write.

In the summer of 2005, Seranella underwent two liver transplants, the second only three days after the first.

Seranella's final novel, "Deadman's Switch," the first of what was planned to be a new mystery series, will be published by St. Martin's Minotaur in April.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by her parents, Nate and Margie Shore; her brothers, Dr. Larry Shore and David Shore; and her stepdaughters, Carrie Seranella and Shannon Howard.

A private funeral will be held, and a celebration of Seranella's life is being planned for February.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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