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NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  MRS. TIRONE-SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON: Commercial fiction is a curious genre. The melding of current events, headline names and pop-culture icons seems inevitably to lead to the fireworks effect: It either inspires oooh's and ahhh's and then disappears into the night...or it's an outright dud.

But for those rare talents who can pull it off, the results can be marvelous. One such writer is Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, whose savvy An American Killing (Henry Holt, $23) has been garnering attention nationwide, with favorable reviews springing up everywhere from the New York Times Review of Books to People and Redbook magazines.

Though billed as a political thriller anchored in the Washington, D.C., establishment, Smith's book seems more character study than murder mystery. Her myriad characters are carefully wrought and empathetically constructed, and the intelligence and restraint she uses in telling their stories is rare in pop fiction.

This is a first-rate talent; a writer of literary merits (The Book of Phoebe, Masters of Illusion) who's tackled what would seem an unexpected project with verve. "An American Killing is a departure," she says. "But it doesn't compromise my desire to deal with issues that mean something to me. In all my books, I seem to explore certain themes: the influence of fathers on their daughters, particularly remote or absent fathers; the effects of racism on all of us...I write about things that infuriate me. If I'm not infuriated at least once a week, I hope someone buries me--because I'm dead."

In her latest work, published in September 1998, her finely honed sense of outrage takes the form of one Denise Burke, wife, mother, and famous authoress (the best-selling fictional author of real-life crime; Burke tells how Dominick Dunne was cribbing her notes at the O.J. trial). Her desire to have an affair with a U.S. congressman (her own hubby is a Clinton advisor) leads her to investigate a small-town murder in her lover's constituency. When the womanizing congressman turns up dead in a Washington hotel with a prostitute and a whole lotta drug paraphernalia, things are just getting started.

An American Killing is not the quick read one expects from a suspense novel, but it's an immensely satisfying one. In her review in the Times, Ellen Feldman hits the nail on the head when she writes, "The reader can't help being torn between racing ahead to discover the denouement and slowing down to enjoy the company of a host of superbly drawn characters who find themselves on surprisingly intimate terms with evil."

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