3 Mins read

combustion, Martin J. SmithWritten by Martin J Smith — It’s some kind of progress to see the growth in the number of crime novels and television series that give hardworking male police detectives a woman boss. And, I guess it reflects even more progress that these female supervisors are allowed to have flaws, unlike the ever-understanding “Ma’am” in the Inspector Lewis shows, whose name prejudges her underlings’ initial suspects, Chief Superintendant Jean Innocent. In the case of David Jackson’s A Tapping at My Door, the boss was overprotective, a mother rather than a supervisor; in William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher, she’s new to the job and a single mom with a rebellious teenage daughter. Most unforgettable is Lynda LaPlante’s development of DCI Jane Tennison: “Don’t call me ma’am, I’m not the bloody queen.”

In Martin J Smith’s new police procedural, Detective Ron Starke works for the police department in the city of Los Colmas, in giant San Bernardino County, known as California’s Inland Empire. His new chief – grabbing a job he expected would be his – is Donna Kerrigan, recently divorced from a wealthy husband and an inveterate micromanager, who Stark thinks has “the people skills of a rattlesnake.” He doesn’t improve his standing with her when she discovers he’s been probing her own background. Their relationship is too uneasy to be sustainable, and you wait for the inevitable blow-up.

Starke is a likeable detective, diligently trying to unravel what befell wealthy Southern California property developer Paul Dwyer. Dwyer’s body was found at the bottom of a rapidly evaporating pond adjacent to his most recent upscale housing development with a bullet in his brain and evidence suggesting he was tortured. Starke has a history with the widowed Mrs Dwyer, the magnate’s second wife, that goes back to high school and a brief romance.

When he interviews Shelby Dwyer and her daughter Chloe, it’s in their magnificent home – quite a contrast to his down-market residence above the Suds-Your-Duds laundromat. As information gradually leaks out of the Dwyer inner circle and from other leads Starke develops, any number of people turn up as serviceable murder suspects. In fact, there may be too large a stack of possibilities, because the motives of them all can’t be developed to the extent that would make them truly credible.

As an example, there’s a whiff of DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) concern about construction and money-laundering for the Sinaloa cartel. This drug cartel possibility prompts a couple of authorial essays about how the cartels work – interesting stuff that you might want to know about, but not necessary to the plot of this book, especially since it soon disappears.

Was the killer acting out of some complicated financial-ecological-revenge motive, or was it something simpler? Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you know things Starke does not. You know Shelby has sought relief from her unhappy marriage online, establishing a chatroom relationship with someone who calls himself LoveSick – ever supportive, ever kind, ever romantic. But who is he, really? Shelby has every urgent 21st century reason for wanting to know. Particularly enjoyable are Smith’s descriptions of the computer geeks Starke deals with when he tracks down Shelby’s missing hard drive.

Starke’s investigation has so many arms it could play out for a long time, except that the blind forces of nature help bring matters to a head. A massive wildfire, driven by the Santa Ana winds, is bearing down on Los Colmas and the Dwyer development. Emergency services are more than stretched and in the middle of that fiery maelstrom, Smith’s protagonists face their ultimate challenges. The fire and its bitter ashes – perhaps a metaphor for their own lives – cover everything.

The acceleration of pace as the fire spreads is great, and through it the author shows that no matter how in control you think you are, some things are beyond you. However, Smith overstuffs the narrative with tantalising characters and suspects that you never get to fully understand. For instance, there are some brief, early scenes with Starke’s ailing father, in care because of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – character and relationship worth developing further. Sequels?

Diversion Publishing

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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