Mia Geiger

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Munch Mancini plumbs the underworld of drugs
Reviewed by Mia Geiger

Barbara Seranella’s books might best be described as “true grit.” The California author pulls from her own troubled past in peppering her acclaimed mystery series starring auto mechanic Miranda “Munch” Mancini with street-savvy authenticity.

A onetime teenage runaway, heroin addict, homeless person, and member of an outlaw motorcycle gang, the 49-year-old author has plenty of material to work with. And work with it she does. Her series features a believable, multilayered protagonist fighting demons in her head and on the ground, searching for truth and a better life.

In An Unacceptable Death, the eighth installment, Seranella applies her pull-no-punches style to a story tracing Munch’s search for the truth behind the death of her fiance, narcotics detective Enrique “Rico” Chacón.

The story begins as Munch, finally free of addictions and the hazards of being a biker “old lady,” achieves her dream: At age 30, she is the proud owner of a house, albeit in a rough part of Santa Monica; living with her adopted 9-year-old daughter, Asia; working in a field she enjoys; and engaged to the love of her life, the ruggedly handsome Chacón.

Then, Chacón is killed during a drug raid.

Munch refuses to believe the police version, which faults Rico as a corrupt cop. She goes undercover for the Los Angeles police to prove them wrong, mixing with ruthless drug dealers and officials she isn’t sure she can trust.

Helping her is her friend from the bad old days, Ellen, a sweet-talking knockout willing to try anything; and her friend Mace St. John, a homicide detective with a soft spot for the mechanic/sleuth.

At the same time, she’s coping with a threat from a dangerous biker gang that has issued a bounty on her in retaliation for her part in the arrest of its leader.

While earlier Munch Mancini novels have involved loss of loved ones, An Unacceptable Death is permeated with a deeper loss as Munch deals with the death of Chacón. In the hands of a less-experienced writer, the protagonist might have displayed her grief more obviously. But Munch’s grief, like her pride and confidence, is quiet. In one scene, she returns home to the delight of her beloved dog, Jasper:

Munch got home at noon. Jasper treated her like a long-lost love. She took the time to pet him and tell him how much she loved him, but it felt as if she were just giving him lip service. Petting him didn’t give her the pleasure it usually did. She noticed the same sort of thing around Asia. A layer of insulation had grown around her heart, keeping out the good and bad feelings. She wondered if this was going to be a permanent change.

As in her earlier books, Seranella, who wrote this one while awaiting a liver transplant, has produced a mystery powered by an intriguing heroine and a story line that keeps readers guessing. The protagonist makes for a compelling study in faith and determination, without preachiness. Like the author’s life, it’s a study in survival and beyond. (Seranella received two livers last summer; the second worked.)

This may be the last Munch Mancini book for a while; the writer’s next one will feature a female crisis-management investigator, expected to be the first in a new series.

Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.


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