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Tucson Weekly Fanning The Flame

"Touched By Fire" Is The Perfect Quick Thriller.

By Christopher Weir

JANUARY 4, 1999: 

Touched by Fire, Greg Dinallo (Fawcett Crest). Paper, $5.99.

SO YOU WALK into the local megastore, venture no further than the towering propaganda displays and pay too much for a hardcover novel by an author whom "everyone" is reading these days. Then you go home, crawl into bed and swoon with anticipation. But by the time page 50 rolls around, you're already getting some sort of lecture, or a history lesson, or a New Age dissertation in disguise. Or maybe things are just too witty, or too clever, or too sentimental. In other words, too cute. Or perhaps you simply find yourself flinging the offending tome across the room: "Get to the freakin' point, you dimestore Tolstoy!"

Sound familiar? If so, you might want to stiff-arm all the promotional cardboard, head straight to the mystery section (or your local independent bookseller) and slap down $6 for Greg Dinallo's Touched By Fire. Simply put, this is a guy who knows how to tell a story. We're talking entertainment here, folks, not deciphering one's role in the material universe.

After a first paragraph that is uncomfortably evocative of the opening lines to Raymond Chandler's short story "Red Wind," Touched By Fire wastes no time establishing a throat-clenching momentum that doesn't let up until the final page. Along the way, Dinallo proves an efficient storyteller who adheres to a maxim that is increasingly, and regrettably, endangered: the worst word is a wasted one.

The setting is Los Angeles in autumn, with hot winds stoking firestorms in the surrounding mountains. Lilah Graham is a UCLA geneticist with a rather voracious appetite for, shall we say, affairs of the flesh. She's in the midst of a provocative research project when a strange package arrives and eventually erupts with incendiary fury, torching her office.

Enter Dan Merrick, county arson investigator, who already has his hands full with the ongoing wildfires. When he asks Graham if she knows of anyone who might want to assassinate her, she replies, "Other than large segments of the psychiatric and sociological communities, neuroscientists, all major religions, and most minority and anti-defamation groups, no."

It seems that Graham aspires to link violent behavior with mutant genes, a concept haunted by political and societal resistance. But Merrick soon learns that Graham also has enemies who are motivated by angst of a more personal nature. And as he sifts through the ashes of subsequent firebombs, he uncovers more than a few buried secrets that burn like hot coals in Graham's past.

In addition to its well-conceived storyline, Touched By Fire also maintains a tight focus that spans the entire novel. Not a single character or development is superfluous. Graham's sexual escapades are never gratuitous, but rather intrinsic to the plot. Even Merrick's young son manages to play a functional role without annoying the reader (it's helpful here to recall the epidemic of annoying children who populate the world of fiction).

Better yet, Dinallo's prose sometimes yields a flair for the poetic: "The superheated air rose over the mountains, emerging as the Santa Ana winds, and raced at freeway speeds down the hundreds of canyons that slashed across Southern California from desert to sea...Like ill-fated lovers, the hot winds and dry terrain needed only a spark to unite them in a passionate, self-destructive frenzy until only smoke and ash remained; and every fall, there was always some nut itching to play matchmaker and set their lonely hearts aflame."

The bottom line is that Touched By Fire doesn't tug at your heartstrings, but rather delivers a nice, satisfying suckerpunch straight to the gut, where the visceral pleasures of fast-paced plotting reside. It's not the recommended route to Oprah's Book Club, but it sure keeps the pages turning.

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