Seranella, Barbara 1956–2007
Seranella, Barbara 1956–2007
Born April 30, 1956, in Santa Monica, CA; died of liver disease, January 21, 2007, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Nate (a furniture company representative) and Margie Shore; married Ron Seranella (an investor); children: Carry Seranella, Shannon Howard (stepdaughters).
Writer, novelist, automobile mechanic, and manager. Ed's Arco Station, Sherman Oaks, CA, car mechanic; Brent-Air Texaco, Brentwood, CA, car mechanic and service manager.
Lifetime Achievement Award for best sleuth, Romantic Times; Best Books of 2001 Mysteries and Thrillers designation, Los Angeles Times, for Unfinished Business; Southern California Booksellers Association, Fiction Award finalist, 2003, for Unpaid Dues; Willa Literary awards finalist, 2003, for No Man Standing; Dennis Lynds Memorial Award for Social Consciousness in Crime Fiction, 2006.
Deadman's Switch (novel), St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2007.
Seranella's thriller story "Catalyst" was serialized, 2001, in Palm Springs Life magazine.
"MUNCH MANCINI" SERIES; CRIME NOVELS
No Human Involved, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.
No Offense Intended, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
Unwanted Company, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Unfinished Business, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.
No Man Standing, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
Unpaid Dues, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.
Unwilling Accomplice, Scribner (New York, NY), 2004.
An Unacceptable Death, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2006.
California writer Barbara Seranella took the old adage "write what you know about" to heart in her "Munch Mancini" mystery series. Seranella was a veteran of life on the streets, a former drug addict, and a car mechanic; her protagonist shares these traits. Seranella's "flawed but appealing heroine," as Miranda "Munch" Mancini is described by a contributor to Publishers Weekly, has gained a wide readership and critical approval in a handful of novels that often pair her with Los Angeles Police Department detective Mace St. John. The novels trace Munch from a hooker and drug addict to mechanic, single mom, and part-time detective, often working out aspects of her own past along the way.
Born in Santa Monica, Seranella grew up in affluent Pacific Palisades; her two brothers attended Stanford University, and a similar future was in store for her until she left home at age fourteen. As she told Bettijane Levine in the Los Angeles Times, "I got into liquor and drugs and underwent a complete personality change." She made her way to San Francisco in the early 1970s, where she had some run-ins with the law, and then joined a commune, getting more involved in the drug life. At the commune, one positive thing happened: she learned how to fix cars, inspired by some of the young dropout mechanics there. Her parents tracked her down after a couple of years but could do nothing to change her ways. She went from cocaine to heroin; by the time she was twenty-one, she was already a veteran of California jails. She finally, however, began to turn her life around, finding employment as a mechanic in gas station garages, and worked for seventeen years in the trade. "I was a really good mechanic," she told Levine, "the person everyone came to when they had a problem that couldn't be fixed." After marrying her boss, Ron Seranella, she decided that she did not want to be a mechanic when she reached fifty, and she sat down to write her first mystery.
Ann Shields noted in the Los Angeles Times that Seranella's first book, No Human Involved, is a novel of "redemption." In this first outing, Munch—short for Munchkin—is on drugs and booze and working as a prostitute. She becomes the chief suspect in the murder of her own father, the "no human involved" of the title—the phrase is cynical insider cop talk for a crime in which transients or other undesirables are the victims. Munch had no great love for her father, who got her hooked on drugs and then pimped her. When Detective Mace St. John comes to pick her up for questioning, she gives him the slip and takes on a new identity as a car mechanic. All goes well for a time until St. John discovers that the gun used in the killing of the older Mancini has also been used in a serial murder, and he decides to track Munch down. Munch, meanwhile, has made a fresh start, getting off drugs and alcohol, as well as getting rid of her biker friends, but when she returns to her old neighborhood to retrieve the hidden weapon, she and Mace come face to face. A critic for Publishers Weekly praised the "grit and authentic street life" of this first novel, while a contributor for Kirkus Reviews similarly noted that "Munch's scenes pulse with such startling immediacy … that first-time Seranella makes you forget how familiar her story is." Catherine M. Nelson, writing in the Armchair Detective, found that the "tense moments for both Munch and Mace keep the pages turning."
Seranella put her heroine on the path of reform in No Offense Intended, but Munch gets drawn back into the old life when Sleaze John shows up and asks for a favor: just pick up and deliver his young daughter, Asia, to his sister. Later, seeing John shot on the freeway, she stops, and a world of pain ensues, involving drugs, burglary, and murder. In the process, Munch gets thrown into jail for parole violation and ultimately joins forces with another detective, Jig Blackston, to get to the bottom of things and save Sleaze John's child. A critic for Kirkus Reviews felt that this second installment "lacks the energy and originality" of the first, but still found Munch to be a "great heroine." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly was more positive, praising Seranella's "gift for snappy dialogue and descriptions," and further observing that "this is a mystery series with legs."
The third book in the series, Unwanted Company, finds Munch adding to her mechanic's wages by starting a limo service, and her car is hired to chauffeur a Romanian diplomat around Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics. A serial killer on the loose murders the two women traveling with the Romanian, and then Ellen, a friend from Munch's past, adds to the troubles: driving for Munch, she witnesses the Romanian involved in another murder. A contributor for Publishers Weekly thought that, in spite of some obvious plot contrivances and a telegraphed ending, "the novel's dizzying pace" and Seranella's "incisive portraits of flawed, vulnerable characters" result in a "satisfying novel." Marilyn Stasio, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented on the "creepy and scary" nature of the novel, twin emotive threads that the author "handles with the same kind of no-sweat skill that Munch applies to her automotive repairs."
Mace St. John makes a return in Unfinished Business, in which Munch—now repairing cars for the rich—and the detective team up when some of her customers appear to be the victims of a rapist. Soon Munch herself, as well as her adopted daughter Asia, are threatened by the rapist. When Mace is taken out of action by a heart attack, Munch has to stop the villain by herself. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that the "reader feels little trepidation" in this mystery; however, the same contributor commented that "Munch is a likable protagonist." Similarly, Dick Lochte, contributor to the Los Angeles Times, felt that the author's own career as an auto mechanic "adds a welcome air of verisimilitude to the novels" and that Seranella "is at her best when presenting the less melodramatic moments in her heroine's life."
The past once again intrudes on Munch in No Man Standing, when the parents of her friend Ellen are killed and Ellen thinks some hidden stolen money may be the cause of the crime. Munch takes time from raising her daughter and buying a house to help Ellen out in this tale that might make readers return to earlier installments in the series "to catch up on what they've missed," according to Booklist contributor Carrie Bissey. Rex E. Klett, writing in Library Journal, suggested this title for those "who like their mysteries a bit grittier," and a contributor for Kirkus Reviews thought this was Seranella's "best yet: fast-paced and brainy but with plenty of heart."
With 2003's Unpaid Dues, Munch is once again reminded of her infamous past when Jane Ferrar is found murdered. Munch's mug shot shows up when the dead woman's prints are run by Detective Mace St. John; she took Ferrar's identity to avoid a drunk-driving charge once upon a time. What Munch does not tell the police, however, is that she and the dead woman had an even stronger link, and Munch suspects this link is what led to Ferrar's death. Ultimately, Munch must risk her well-ordered life to get to the bottom of things before she becomes another victim. In another Booklist review, Bissey felt that this sixth title "provides some valuable backstory," and a critic for Kirkus Reviews compared the novel to a "well-tuned machine" that "glides perfectly right up to its elegant finish."
In Unwilling Accomplice, Munch still has the responsibility of her adopted eight-year-old daughter, Asia. However, the child's biological family is dysfunctional at best, and when she tries to help Asia get back together with her cousins, considerable trouble results. A gruff call from Asia's Aunt Lisa results in an invitation to meet and get better acquainted with Lisa's daughters and Asia's cousins, Jill and Charlotte. Hoping that being around some other family members will lift Asia's spirits, Munch agrees to bring the girls together. However, she soon finds out that Aunt Lisa's parenting style is not orthodox. Jill, despite her difficult home life, is a cheerful and optimistic girl. Charlotte, however, is a surly goth. When a classmate of Charlotte's is murdered, the girl disappears, putting both the police and a determined Munch on her trail. Unfortunately for Munch, police involvement results in Lisa's arrest on outstanding warrants, and she finds herself caring for both Asia and Jill while trying to locate the missing Charlotte. Meanwhile, Munch must also deal with twists in her relationship with police officer boyfriend Rico Chacon. Booklist reviewer Connie Fletcher called Munch "so powerfully depicted, with such exquisitely telling detail, that she seems drawn directly from life," and concluded that the novel is "beautifully written and harrowing."
Tragedy strikes for Munch and Rico in An Unacceptable Death. Anticipating her upcoming marriage to Rico, Munch is worried when he accepts a dangerous undercover drug assignment. Her worst fears are soon realized when Rico is killed, shot to death by his fellow police officers. What seems like a tragic accident takes an even more nightmarish turn when she finds out that Rico was considered "dirty," a corrupt cop, and that the department is withholding benefits from his ex-wife because of it. Unwilling to accept the situation, Munch goes looking for answers from investigator Phil Bayless. Later, she finds herself practically abducted by uniformed officers who take her to meet Roger, a colleague of Rico's who needs her help. Soon, Munch herself is drawn into the dangerous world of drug trafficking, and finds that answers to Rico's murder lie in chilling and lethal places. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book a "searching account of a woman coping with the ultimate loss," while Booklist writer Fletcher found Munch to be "an absolutely first-rate heroine in a compelling story." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called it "character-driven crime fiction at its finest by one of the genre's most accomplished stylists."
Seranella inaugurated a new series with a new main character in Deadman's Switch. Protagonist Charlotte Lyon is an "obsessive-compulsive who specializes in crisis management," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. Still grieving the recent death of her husband, Charlotte focuses her efforts on consulting with companies after a serious accident, disaster, or theft, helping them deal effectively with shareholders, employees, the public, and the authorities. A train derailment in a remote area of California brings Charlotte to work for Sun Rail. The death toll is small—only two fatalities—but one of them was the train's veteran and knowledgeable engineer, Bob Peterson. Charlotte joins forces with the handsome Todd Hannigan, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator who tools about on a fancy motorcycle. Soon, she uncovers stories about a mysterious Samaritan, identity hidden by a motorcycle helmet, who helped pull survivors from the wreckage of the train and then sped off on his motorbike before anyone could talk to him. As Charlotte works to discover why Peterson would have abruptly thrown on the train's brakes in open country, she begins to wonder where Hannigan might have been when the train jumped its tracks. She also finds herself struggling with deepening feelings for the dashing Hannigan. Her work is complicated by a threatened lawsuit from the son of the other victim, wealthy philanthropist and former movie star Rachel Priest, and from the unwelcome meddling of her own busybody mother. "This is a stellar first in a series with a fascinating and enjoyable character that has great promise," commented Armchair Interviews Web site reviewer Kathy Perschmann.
Seranella died on January 21, 2007, at age fifty.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armchair Detective, summer, 1997, Catherine M. Nelson, review of No Human Involved, pp. 351-352.
Booklist, March 1, 2002, Carrie Bissey, review of No Man Standing, p. 1097; March 15, 2003, Carrie Bissey, review of Unpaid Dues, p. 1281; March 15, 2004, Connie Fletcher, review of Unwilling Accomplice, p. 1273; November 15, 2005, Connie Fletcher, review of An Unacceptable Death, p. 29.
Drood Review of Mystery, March 1, 2004, Melinda C. Burton, "Judging a Book by Its Cover," p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1997, review of No Human Involved, p. 989; December 12, 1998, review of No Offense Intended, pp. 1766-1767; February 15, 2002, review of No Man Standing, p. 226; February 15, 2003, review of Unpaid Dues, p. 274; February 15, 2004, review of Unwilling Accomplice, p. 158; November 15, 2005, review of An Unacceptable Death, p. 1215; February 15, 2007, review of Deadman's Switch.
Library Journal, April 1, 2002, Rex E. Klett, review of No Man Standing, p. 146; April 1, 2003, Rex Klett, review of Unpaid Dues, p. 134.
Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1997, Bettijane Levine, "A Runaway Success," p. E1; April 9, 2000, Ann Shields, "Past as Prologue: Mystery Writer Barbara Seranella Finds Inspiration in Her Own Rough Life," p. B11; May 27, 2001, Dick Lochte, review of Unfinished Business, p. E2.
New York Times Book Review, February 6, 2000, Marilyn Stasio, review of Unwanted Company, p. 24; May 23, 2004, Marilyn Stasio, review of Unwilling Accomplice.
Publishers Weekly, June 16, 1997, review of No Human Involved, p. 49; December 21, 1998, review of No Offense Intended, p. 57; January 10, 2000, review of Unwanted Company, p. 48; April 23, 2001, review of Unfinished Business, p. 49; March 23, 2003, review of Unpaid Dues, p. 61; November 28, 2005, review of An Unacceptable Death, p. 27; February 5, 2007, review of Deadman's Switch, p. 44.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 6, 2004, Dick Adler, "Deadly Enemies in the Recent and the Not-so-recent Past," p. 4.
Armchair Interviews,http://www.armchairinterviews.com/ (November 12, 2007), Kathy Perschmann, review of Deadman's Switch.
Barbara Seranella Home Page, http://www.barbaraseranella.com (November 11, 2003).
LA Observed,http://www.laobserved.com/ (January 22, 2007), Denise Hamilton, "Barbara Seranella—An Appreciation."
OC Register, January 23, 2007, Robin Hinch, "Mystery Writer Dies at Fifty," obituary of Barbara Seranella.