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Book review: Gold digger in the hot seat in 'Fire and Ashes'

Correspondent

‘Fire and Ashes’ By Elaine Viets. Thomas & Mercer, 288 pages, $15.99

At the heart of Elaine Viets’ well-plotted second Angela Richman novel is how this St. Louis death investigator is recovering from a series of strokes that had left her in a coma. But no matter the poignancy of this strong woman’s recovery, Viets is careful to keep the intrigue moving by adding a look at a wealthy insular community that feeds on gossip and judgment, especially when it comes to those who are poor or from a different race.

After months of physical therapy, Angela is back at work, determined to show that she can pull her weight and be the insightful investigator she was before the strokes. In “Fire and Ashes,” Angela investigates the death of wealthy Luther Delor, who died during a fire at his mansion in the gated community of Olympia Forest Estates, a St. Louis suburb in Chouteau County.

Despite his bank account, Luther was a bit of a scandal in the area. A 70-year-old drunk who loved dressing up as a rhinestone cowboy and pushing others’ buttons, Luther was in the middle of a bitter divorce from his wife of 40 years. The fire is ruled an arson and suspicion immediately falls on Luther’s fiance, 20-year-old Kendra Salvato, who is Mexican-American. Kendra is an easy target — she was with Luther when the fire broke out in the bedroom but she escaped fairly unscathed.

She’s labeled a gold digger because of her huge engagement ring and the $2 million Luther gave her. And she’s also accused of setting the other fires that have been plaguing the community. But Angela believes Kendra is innocent, especially because Luther’s family will inherit the money from his lucrative but sleazy chain of payday-loan stores.

Viets, best known for her lighter mysteries, especially her humor-laden Dead End Job series set in Fort Lauderdale, aptly handles the darker aspects of this series. A death investigator looks into any death of someone not in the care of a doctor and turns over her investigation to the medical examiner. Viets includes the perfect amount of details about forensics, police and fire investigations to make “Fire and Ashes” credible without overwhelming the plot.

Angela’s continued recovery remains a vital part of Viets’ series. The author bases Angela’s stroke and rehab on Viets’ own experiences. In 2007, three weeks before the publication of her Dead End Job mystery “Murder With Reservations,” Viets suffered a debilitating stroke. Her author friends continued her book tour for her. Viets skillfully makes Angela a likable character who will engage readers for what should be a long series.

Meet the author

Elaine Viets will discuss “Fire and Ashes” at 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Murder on the Beach, 273 Pineapple Grove Way, Delray Beach, 561-279-7790, murderonthebeach.com.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

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