CATCHING FIRE by Kay Nolte Smith


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Smith's first novel, The Watcher (1980), had some of the old-fashioned snap of a B-movie murder mystery; but this harmless New York City melodrama of gangsters and unions and frame-ups is old-fashioned only in its drab, humorless creakiness. The tediously noble hero here is Erik Dante, nÉ Arrigo Dantino, a street-kid who overcame his upbringing to become an actor and now the operator of an off-Broadway theater dedicated to 19th-century verse-plays and such. But Erik's technical staff is non-union--which infuriates the mob-connected union biggies: a big media controversy ensues (utterly implausibly), with help from TV-news-star Jac Sanda; and the mob's secret Mr. Big gives orders for Erik to be framed for murder--by having his own brother (a hood who hates Erik) kill somebody during a picketing demonstration outside the theater. Meanwhile, Erik is falling for lovely divorced-mother Jac, though he feels obligated to his wealthy lover Maeve Jerrold, the 50-ish dilettante who Finances the theater. (It was she who introduced Erik to high culture.) And when Erik, with help from Jac, starts to figure out the identity of the union's secret Mr. Big, hitmen come gunning for him. So a few near-fatal fracases ensue before Erik resolves his personal problems (including guilt over a teenage killing) and moves on to the painfully contrived finale: the opening night of Erik's starting performance in Maeve's own play Firestorm (about Prometheus)--with all the bad guys in the audience, killers lurking backstage, and Maeve, suicidal anyway about fading looks and losing Erik, becoming a convenient fatality. Too little mystery, too many coincidences (Jac's ex-husband happens to be a mob-connected lawyer), too much soap opera--and, despite the contemporary theater background (unconvincing throughout), this whole slow-moving enterprise feels like routine suspense circa 1950.

Pub Date: March 24th, 1982
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan