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Kick back and enjoy Brogan’s latest mystery

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, July 8, 2007

YESTERDAY’S FATAL,

by Jan Brogan.

St. Martin’s. 324 pages. $24.95.

BY SAM COALE
Special to the Journal

Jan Brogan’s third mystery — she is the author of A Confidential Source and Final Copy, both of which I enjoyed — gets off to a breathless start with a dead woman in a car, which bursts into flame by a tree out in the country on a rainy night. But there’s an odd circumstance: the driver’s door is open.

Lizette Gorda’s body is discovered by Hallie Ahern, investigative reporter for the Providence Morning Chronicle (loosely based on The Providence Journal, for which Brogan once wrote), who recently moved to Providence from Boston, having overcome her addictions to gambling and sleeping pills and the death of her brother. “I have sort of an all-or-nothing personality,” she admits.

The mystery builds slowly, carefully, as Hallie, suspecting that Gorda has been murdered, stumbles upon an insurance scam, staged car accidents, a predatory car ring, a grimy underworld of car body shops and spurious clinics, the ubiquitous presence of Tito Manaforte, and the tangled, often illegal immigrant world of Dominicans and others willing to do anything for money to survive.

Her adrenaline-infused sense of risk and various close calls hurl us headlong into the tale, as suspense and suspicions gather and erupt. She barely manages to escape being killed at least twice, and is haunted by men who are following her and an ever-present fear, which comes from trying to expose a vast, octopus-like conspiracy.

At the same time, the Chronicle’s been sold, and the new management plans to lay off 15 percent of the newspaper’s staff. Hallie needs a big story to keep her job. She’s also involved with Matt Cavanaugh in the attorney general’s office and becomes involved with a gorgeous hunk, attorney Dane Piedmont. Beware lawyers in heat.

Brogan’s plotting is terrific. Like pulling a loose thread on a sweater that slowly unravels, her heroine stalks the various players in an elaborate scheme that leads into a dark labyrinthine realm of double dealers, payoffs, bribes, embezzlers, murderers, slick con artists, gamblers, stolen documents, elusive informants, car crashes, loan sharks and the Big T Auto Body Shop.

For Rhode Islanders, the book’s especially fun as Brogan discovers bodies in West Greenwich, gambles at the dog track in Lincoln, and prowls the streets of Providence, living in an apartment at Wayland Square and dining at Al Forno, the Z-Bar and Grille on Wickenden Street, and McCormick & Schmick’s at the Biltmore.

This is a terrific mystery: savvy, incisive, clear-eyed and craftily detailed. We get initiated into a harrowing criminal enterprise insidiously entangled with Providence, an enormous web of corruption and kickbacks. It’ll grab you and keep you guessing until the final fiery inferno.

YESTERDAY’S FATAL,