By Barbara Seranella; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
She’s 10 hours in on giving up drugs – forever this time, she swears. She’s just come in to pay off her tab then hit the road for “the country,” a vague but better place in her mind.
But old habits die hard, when a man with “sad, baggy eyes . . . set in a basset hound face” offers her a drink, she takes it. Then immediately starts an internal calculation: How much would he pay to have sex with her? If he did, how much heroin could she buy? Then she reminds herself that she doesn’t do that anymore.
The sad-eyed man is Det. Sgt. Mace St. John. He’s investigating two homicides, one officially and one not. The official one is the shooting of Flower George Mancini, a drug dealer, pimp and panderer, who may be Munch’s father. (He claims to be on county child welfare benefit forms.) Munch (short for Munchkin) was seen driving Flower George’s white van away from the scene of his murder to the Venture Inn.
The murder Mace is unofficially investigating is that of a dismembered body of a young woman. One of her severed arms was found near the UCLA crew team’s boat house on Ballona Creek. Officially, the investigation belongs to Mace’s former partner Ernie Potts, now a robbery homicide detective. Potts can’t investigate his way out of a paper bag with a flashlight in Mace’s estimation.
The harder Munch tries to avoid being arrested for Mace’s first homicide, the more the claws of her past life draw her into the path of the perpetrator of Mace’s second homicide.
Munch’s goal is to get through withdrawal, stay out of jail, find a job and get a life. Through her life on the streets, she’s picked up useful skills as a car mechanic. A small woman, she inspires friendship with people like Ruby, a Denny’s waitress, who gets her into Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and Jack, owner of Happy Jack’s Auto Repair in the San Fernando Valley, who hires her despite her unlikely appearance.
There are many pleasures in reading this book. It’s set in Los Angeles, much of it in Sherman Oaks and the San Fernando Valley. It’s clear that author Barbara Seranella knows the territory well. (Seranella worked at an Arco station in Sherman Oaks for five years.)
Seranella has a talent for creating interesting characters: Mace’s former boxing trainer father Digger, who has dementia; Orson Ozwald, known as the Wiz, who runs a Venice cab company and street mechanic’s shop; and a classy, refined parole officer, who has a sealed juvenile rap sheet of her own.
Her primary characters, Mace and Munch, are interesting and likeable. Munch has grown up in gruesome circumstances, but her resilience, resourcefulness and courage have kept her afloat. Mace takes good care of his father and lives in a restored Pullman train car parked in storage lot overlooking Olympic Boulevard.
Many of Seranella’s secondary characters such as Ruby and Jack are kind, observant people who watch out for others. This provides a counterpoint to the violence and cruelty the villains in the book display.
This story has more twists and turns than Mulholland Drive. Seranella keeps the suspense growing to the surprising ending. The series is set in the late 1970s. This is a world where the police department is just starting to get computerized; officers in different jurisdictions mail each other photos and reports; and detectives rely on phone booths. However, the effect is more vintage than dated.
The other books in the Munch Mancini series (in order) are:
- NO OFFENSE INTENDED (1999)
- UNWANTED COMPANY (2000)
- UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2001)
- NO MAN STANDING (2002)
- UNPAID DUES (2003)
- UNWILLING ACCOMPLICE (2004
In the Munch Mancini series, Seranella draws on her own experience. At 14, she ran away from her Pacific Palisades home, joined a hippie commune, learned how fix cars hanging out on the street and rode with an outlaw motorcycle gang called the Heathens. She died in 2007, at the age of 50, while waiting for her third liver transplant,
She started using heroin at 17. Five days before her 22nd birthday she stopped because her life was “all-out suicidal craziness until I basically got sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Her work won several awards: the Romantic Times’ Lifetime Achievement Award for best sleuth; a listing on the Los Angeles Times’ Best Books of 2001 Mysteries and Thrillers designation for UNFINISHED BUSINESS; was a California Booksellers Association Fiction Award finalist in 2003 for Unpaid Dues; and a Willa Literary Awards finalist in 2003 for No Man Standing.
Jeannette Hartman is the creator and reviewer for BookReviewsByJeannette.com, a weekly review of mystery books.