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Sean Doolittle


US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-9724412-2-0

Publication Date: 09-15-2003

383 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: December 8, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003





Whether by good luck or by prophetic planning, Uglytown released Sean Doolittle's second book, 'Burn' at a most propitious time, publicity-wise. With wildfires burning major swaths of Southern California, topping the TV news and the front pages of newspapers across the country, 'Burn' is a mystery about, well -- wildfires in Southern California, the discovery of a body of a SoCal fitness guru in his Alfa Romeo, and the subsequent search for who murdered him and why. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Whatever.

Doolittle has managed a somewhat genre-bending feat in the mystery realm -- he's written a feel-good, hard-boiled mystery; all the classic hard-boiled elements are combined with a sympathetic gentleness of characterization that is wholly original. Bad guys and violence, wise-cracks and resignation, cops and mobsters, power brokers and fitness fanatics all mix together in a laid-back Southern California style that is suspenseful and compelling, but remarkably free of the baser elements -- vengeance, retribution, hatred -- that drive most mysteries of this type.

'Burn' is held together by Andrew Kindler, an arsonist from Baltimore who has fled to California to "retire", taking a bit of unearned loot along with him. Holed up in his cousin Caroline's beach house, Kindler is visited by Detective Timms, LAPD, investigating the homicide death of fitness guru Gregor Tavlin. Tavlin was the celebrity super-star of a fitness empire of clubs, videos and TV programs owned by the Lomax family. Lomax Sr. is a wealthy LA power broker and high-profile member of the Police Commission. Lomax Jr, now missing, is the primary suspect in Tavlin's murder. Lomax's daughter, Heather, is a tough-but-self-destructive dilettante; Lomax's wife is mentally ill in an upscale sanitarium. The Lomax clan mixes with the fitness clan in a tangle of murderous secrets and conflicting agendas, ultimately unraveled by Kindler and Timms.

Andrew Kindler is an unusual protagonist. Despite his criminal past, he's a laid-back, rather gentle guy in search of nothing more than anonymity and retreat. Drawn into a criminal investigation solely by circumstance, he manages to connect with all the players, sometimes violently and sometimes with endearing compassion. Kindler is definitely not in the wisecracking tough-guy mode of most hardboiled mysteries. He's just a generally nice, caring guy who happens to be able to take care of himself in a fight and was, apparently, quite good at setting fires.

Doolittle's prose is smooth and stylish, combining wit and intelligence into a totally readable narrative. Revealed with straightforward exposition and terrific dialogue, his characterizations are remarkably even-handed and gentle. He has created a good-sized cast of characters, and has provided each with a story and background that makes them both believable and, if not always likable, at least understandable. From the vain, pudgy Rodney Marvalis, Tevlin's successor, to the intense Luther Vines, security guard and inventor of a monstrous exercise device dubbed The Neckerciser, to Todd Todman, Lomax Enterprise's PR man and fawning can-do guy, each character is fleshed out and fully portrayed. Doolittle writes of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Lomax fitness empire with clarity, and equally well of the life-in-the-trenches and political workings of the LAPD. Doolittle is adept at balancing a suspenseful, well-paced mystery story with realistic and humanistic characters. His characters connect with each other emotionally as well as physically, workmates are friendly and helpful, families are dysfunctional, but caring. Even the goons and lowlifes are sympathetic; the ultimate murderer is misguided, emotionally bereft, but not vengeful.

Doolittle sandwiches his story between a prologue and epilogue, done in a highly unusual way. At the beginning of all Uglytown releases, readers are told straight out "what this mystery is about" and "people this mystery is about". At the end, Doolittle provides a voice-overesque wrap up, which he calls a "report", of what subsequently happened to all the primary characters. Clean and clear in the beginning, neat and tidy at the end, suspenseful and feel-good in between. Not bad, not bad at all.