Martin J. Smith has written several novels, but this is the first one reviewed in MRB. “Combustion” is a well-titled murder mystery since the concluding scene takes place in the midst of the Southern California wild fire season in the midst of a new home development project that is about to go up in flames. Paul Dwyer was the primary developer of the Inland Empire near San Bernardino. He was a ruthless businessman who was also a drunk and was physically abusive with his wife and daughter. Shelby was well aware of her husband’s serial infidelities, something she chose to ignore out of her fear of him. His abuses were well hidden from the public since his wife colluded with keeping the bad behaviors in the dark. Fellow contractors got rich from working for Dwyer, and Dwyer and his wife, Shelby, gave millions to local charities through their foundation. It seemed everyone wanted this cash cow to keep going.
Shelby had always been a social climber, a gold digger, and when she married Dwyer, she left behind her high school lover Ron Starke, a police detective who still carried tender memories of their time together. And Ron had a problem. He was recently passed over as Chief of the department when Donna Kerrigan, an outsider from LA, a rising star there, was hired for the position. It was clear to Starke that Kerrigan saw him as a threat and she wanted him out of the department.
Then Paul went missing, and it was a month later that his body was discovered in the pond of one of his new massive developments. He had been shot in the head. As Paul’s secret life was being uncovered, it was also discovered that Shelby had her own secret life, one that was linked to an internet fantasy site, a place where she felt she found someone who would listen to her, understand her problems.
Smith’s characters were believable and the drama was intense. This book was a one-day read. Certainly the fire scene at the end was fitting in that lives and life-dreams were going up in smoke as the true villainy unfolded. The subplots were well used to flesh out the qualities of his main characters. The author tied together all of these stories, and while I did not see the ultimate “bad guy” revealed until the end, I was ultimately disappointed with the conclusion as being a bit too unbelievable. Those of us that love this crime genre novel must be willing to suspend reality judgments to a certain extent, but there is a limit to that suspended judgment – and Smith carried this one a bit too far. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining read, one that you might enjoy on a flight from LAX to O’Hare (hence, it falls into my category of airplane books).