Christine Andreae scorches the pages in SMOKE EATERS , a wilderness mystery set on a mountain in Montana where a forest fire is raging out of control. The Justice Peak fire is “one of the big ones,” an environmental war zone where 1,709 troops are battling an elemental force that makes up its own military rules. As the first female commander of this macho army — whose sooty soldiers are grouped into squads of smoke jumpers, hotshots, ground-pounders, sawyers, swampers and mop-up gruntts — Mattie McCulloch has some personal blazes to put out before she can get to work. But she’s all-pro when five firefighters, including her own son, vanish in a firestorm set by an arsonist. The action leaps from one flash Point to the next while the firebug lurks in the smoke, getting his sexual jollies from the destruction and adding a Stygian dimension to a hot and hellish story.
—New York Times Book Review, March 19, 2000
Along with the edict against divulging the endings of mysteries, reviewers are pledged never to reveal the true identity of mangled corpses, the hidden motivation of killers, and the final body count when all the shooting and stabbing has stopped. Too bad, because SMOKE EATERS (Minotaur, $24.95) by Christine Andreae is a clever mystery that offers the thrill of the unexpected-although not in the definitive form served up in Blood Rain. Fortunately, there’s still lots to talk about here because SMOKE EATERS is also filled with agreeably complicated characters and an “extreme adventure” storyline-a gargantuan forest fire that threatens all the flora, fauna and foolhardy humans (among them a band of nudist militia-persons) in its path.
The heroine of SMOKE EATERS is Mattie McCulloch, a forty-ish redhead who comes from a long line of firefighters. When the novel opens, Mattie has just been appointed Incident Commander of the Justice Peak forest fire that’s raging in Southwest Montana. The first woman ever to hold such a job, Mattie is in charge of all of the firefighters at the site, most of whom are male and many of whom resent taking orders from a female. Count among the latter Mattie’s own 19-year-old son, Jimmy, who’s carrying on the family tradition and working with a “hotshot” crew.
The “hotshots,” we’re told, are known for their skills as endurance runners. But when Jimmy and some of his crew are caught in a blow-up, they can’t out run the fire’s fatal touch. One of Mattie’s first official duties as Incident Commander is to announce the death of her son and his comrades workers compensation attorney sacramento. After professional investigators judge the blow-up to be suspicious (even, perhaps, the work of an arsonist, Mattie’s unofficial duty becomes to find her son’s killer.
We readers know from the beginning that foul play is afoot because we’re privy, as Mattie is not, to the computer diary entries of the evildoer. Inexorably, the paths of Mattie and her nemesis converge, and the results are incendiary. Any mystery involving forest fires that begins with an epigraph from Norman Maclean’s Posthumously published book, Young Men and Fire, about the deadly Mann Gulch of 1949, had better be good. Maclean’s book ranks right up there, in my still awed opinion, with such other exquisite prose elegies as Philip Roth’s Patrimony and even Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Of course, Fire Eaters is a different order of literature altogether, intent foremost on delivering suspense. But the mystery earns the right to invoke Maclean’s masterpiece. In its depiction of a grief-dazed Mattie, struggling to do her job even as she’s slowly taking in the horror of Jim’s death. SMOKE EATERS provides not only a riverting murder mystery but also an affecting meditation on loss, missed opportunities and the fantasy of a second chance.
—Maureen Corrigan, Mysteriers, Washington Post, March 26, 2000
With painstakingly accurate details, the author captures the danger, the sacrifice, the smells and the heat … to make SMOKE EATERS a first-rate cliffhanger. The buildup interwoven through the story that profiles the villain is wonderfully horrific … SMOKE EATERS is first-rate, an unpredictable page turner.”
—Denver Post, March 12, 2000
“. . with three novels and an Edgar nomination under her belt, [Christine Andreae] perhaps has missed receiving the notice she deserves… SMOKE EATERS has drawn good pre-publication notices from industry pace-setters, and it may be Ms. Andreae’s breakout novel. It is tightly plotted … She obviously has done her homework. . .Note Ms. Andreae’s name and catch up with her work.”
—Ann Lloyd Merrriman, Editor, Commentary/Books Richmond Times Dispatch,
March 19, 2000
Fine storytelling. After three creditable Lee Squires novels (A Small Target, 1996, etc.), Andreae takes a giant step forward with her appealing “smoke eater”: tenderhearted and womanly, tough-fibered and competitive.
—Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2000
This is well-written entertainment with plenty of action, serious suspense, and even a few slow-roasted red herring.
—Booklist, January 1, 2000
“Literate and fast-paced, this is a good choice for most fiction collections.”
Andreae brings to her fourth thriller even more of the high tension, dark mystery, and tight plotting that earned her a 1995 Edgar Award nomination for Trail of Murder. Set in the midst of raging forest fire in the rugged mountains of Montana, this gripping tale pits a hard-boiled female firefighter against roaring flames, gender hostility, professional jealousy, political interference and a murderous psychotic arsonist.
—Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1999
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