by Cynthia Chow
& Elaine Viets
This week we have a review of the latest Death Investigator mystery by Elaine Viets, Fire and Ashes. We also have an interesting guest post from Elaine about that book. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Fire and Ashes, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Fire and Ashes: An Angela Richman, Death Investigator MysteryBy Elaine Viets
Review by Cynthia Chow
When geriatric financier Luther Ridley Delor goes up in flames along with his Chouteau Forest mansion, the wealthy Missouri community immediately condemns his twenty-year-old trophy fiancé. A viral video of a lecherous Luther drunkenly groping her the night before only makes the Mexican-American manicurist more of a suspect in the eyes of the police, who are quick to judge her based on their racist and elitist views. Having moved up the ladder by sucking up to politicians, Detective Ray Greiman epitomizes the worst of lazy cops, and Angela Richman is determined that Kendra Graciela Salvato not be railroaded right into prison. As the Death Investigator for Chouteau County, Angela reports to the medical examiner and oversees crime scenes and unattended deaths. The year she spent recovering from six consecutive strokes and a coma has been a struggle, but she is more than up to the task of outsmarting Greiman and digging past the prejudice. What is proving far more challenging is overcoming the death of her beloved husband, whom she may never stop mourning despite the encouragement of her friends to re-enter the dating scene.
It’s not just the death of sleazy Luther and his scandalous lifestyle that has the neighborhood divided and gossiping. A series of arsons, along with drug use and a fatal overdose, have the judgmental snobs of Chouteau Forest denouncing the working-class Toonerville teens. If you live in Toonerville, chances are that you work for the residents who live in Chouteau Forest. Angela has the pedigree but no longer the wealth of Chouteau Forest, allowing her to cross the divide and see through the surface. The gated community of Olympia Forest Estates quickly closes ranks around the sleazy Luther, rewriting his history and condemning both Kendra and her father. Jose Salvato may be the respected business owner of a Chouteau Forests lawn service, but being neither white nor “one of us” makes him the obvious culprit in the eyes of the privileged, white town.
One would have hoped that these narrow, prejudicial viewpoints would be outdated and obsolete, but a glance at today’s news crushes that optimism. Angela may have been raised with wealth, but she is not blind to its inherent flaws and entitlement. Readers should feel inflamed and incensed by the prejudices, but these moments are balanced by the levity and clever dialogue between Angela and her foul-mouthed best friend. Details surrounding arson investigation are intricate and fascinating, and this along with Angela’s intelligence and determination lead them to the uncomfortable truth.
The previous novel, Brain Storm, dealt with Angela’s uphill struggle to recover from her strokes, and while she still often suffers from the trauma she has found successful coping mechanisms. Characters introduced in that novel reappear as well, some having changed for the better and others not at all. Elaine Viets continues to grow as a writer, and this return to her more traditional mystery novels continues to surprise with its nuanced plotting and fearless topical explorations.
You Never Walk Alone
By Elaine Viets
Here’s how Fire and Ashes, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, opens:
Five fire engines, two ladder trucks, a portable light truck, a battalion chief’s van, and what looked like every cop car in Chouteau County were fighting this fire. Death investigator Angela Richman knew it was already too late—she was summoned only for death. Tonight, someone had died in that blazing building, choked by the smoke and seared by those flames. Angela oversaw the bodies at Chouteau County crime scenes or unattended deaths. The death investigator reported to the county medical examiner.
Who was it? Angela didn’t know yet. The detective’s call was cryptic: “Luther Ridley Delor’s house is on fire. One body so far. They’re bringing it out. Get over there now.” Seventy-year-old Luther called himself a financier to take away the sting of how his family made a trainload of money: running a nationwide chain of payday loan companies. People—especially desperate ones—knew the slogan “You get more with Delor.” Was the old man dead? Was the victim his young fiancée? Or did a friend or servant die in that hellish fire?
As Fire and Ashes begins, Chouteau County death investigator Angela Richman watches flames destroy a multi-million-dollar mansion. The owner, seventy-year-old Luther Delor, is a bed-hopping drunk with a chain of sleazoid payday loan storefronts. His fiancée, twenty-year-old Mexican-American manicurist Kendra Salvato, is blamed for the fatal fire. After all, she’s an outsider who’s already made off with $2 million of the old lech’s money just for wearing his engagement ring. She’s also accused of setting arson fires in this posh area. Angela believes Kendra is an innocent victim of prejudice, and begins gathering evidence to halt Kendra’s fast-march to death row.
Where does Angela find the proof that can help save Kendra? Security cameras could help. “It’s almost impossible for anyone to go anywhere without being caught on a security camera,” a homicide detective told me. “Most stores and many homes have security cameras inside and out.”
You can’t outrun them. When fleeing crooks take to the highways, their photos are snapped by toll lane cameras, and their license plates and times are recorded. These cameras make it tough for crooks, but they also create problems for us mystery writers: How can our fictional crooks commit crimes and not get caught on camera? We don’t want to make the puzzle too easy for our readers, who enjoy figuring out the evildoers’ identities.
That’s the problem I wrestled with in Fire and Ashes, my new Angela Richman forensic mystery. Kendra Salvato is not only blamed for the fiery death of her fiancé, Luther Delor, but a series of damaging arson fires. Angela believes that the security cameras could save Kendra. But when an empty Chouteau County mansion burns to the ground, there are no security cameras. The bankrupt owner couldn’t afford a security system. Yes, the mansion’s battery-operated smoke alarms went off, but the nearby estates are so vast the neighbors lived too far away to hear them.
The security cameras for those same estates capture the cars of some likely suspects, but those videos prove nothing—it’s not against the law to drive on a road.
What finally brings the real arsonists to justice?
A dashboard camera that belongs to a Chouteau County pizza driver. While on a delivery, the pizza driver’s dash cam captures the arsonists at the wrong place and at the wrong time.
The driver’s photographic evidence, along with the camera’s time and date stamp, start the process that leads to the capture of the arrogant arsonists.
They’re done in by a large pepperoni—and a young man they never bothered to acknowledge.
To enter to win a copy of Fire and Ashes, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “ashes,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 19, 2017. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.
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