cover image With an Extreme Burning

With an Extreme Burning

Bill Pronzini. Carroll & Graf Publishers, $19.95 (275pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-0139-1

The most intense writing in Pronzini's new novel is the title, which refers to a series of deaths by fire caused by an unknown villain in a California town. The story itself is mostly a lackluster working out of whodunit. Dix Malory begins to suspect that his wife Katy's death in a car crash was no accident only after he starts to get phone calls from a man who, disguising his voice, says that he was her lover. Soon Dix learns that his friend Cecca also has been getting calls, these making sexual threats against her daughter, Amy. When the cops prove little help, Dix and Cecca turn sleuth, doubling their efforts after more friends die by fire. Several suspects are set up, but the killer's motivation, when revealed, comes nearly out of left field, making the choice of villain seem arbitrary. Pronzini avoids tarting up potentially lurid scenes, most notably those concerning the kidnapping of Amy, but the suspense builds unevenly, leading to a windswept, cliffside climax that is muted in a message-like wrapping. This latest is no match for even a middling entry in the author's Nameless Detective series, to which he should return, pronto. (Dec.)