Wagman’s second (after Skin Deep, 1997), like a good Hollywood thriller, links an implausible premise to events convincing enough in their detail and swift enough in their development to carry the reader forward.
After their old Aunt Neddy spontaneously combusts and melts onto her kitchen floor, her nieces, unemployed Amy and Gwendolyn, co-owner of a Beverly Hills bakery, hire a handyman named Roosevelt to clean and renovate the L.A. house she’s left them. Also on the scene is Dr. Minor, a dwarf whose field of expertise is SHC (spontaneous human combustion), who’s flown from his clinic in Pennsylvania to investigate. Roosevelt’s in love with Amy, the older sister. Amy manipulates his affections, but she’s really in love with Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn reciprocates, but she’s still hung up on Tony, the other owner of her bakery, and her ex-lover/current harasser. Amy, an ex-sex-line psychic, knows that Roosevelt had spent several years recovering in a mental institution after being convicted of killing his girlfriend, and that he’s both superficially masculine and deeply vulnerable. Wagman does a good job giving the principals inner lives, and the implausible plot-turns emerge from solid characterization. A love scene in the shower between the sisters is both surprising and inevitable. Roosevelt’s visit to an ASPCA facility, and his identification with an old dog fighting delivery to its executioners, provides a rare moment in fiction: an animal scene that is poignant without feeling mawkish. L.A., too, is rendered with authority, from vampire bars on the sunrise side of Sunset Boulevard to motels in Topanga Canyon.
The frustrated desires of these characters are linked symbolically to the meat in Aunt Neddy’s freezer. Spontaneous combustion microwaves rather than thaws, leaving its products ready quickly, and as well done as this exercise in flash defrosting.