Barbara Seranella – An Appreciation

I don’t think there was anybody in the mystery community quite like Barbara Seranella. Oh sure, a lot of us talk a good game, we write gritty noir scenes about grifters, hookers, drug addicts, teenaged runaways, motorcycle mamas, crooked cops and large homicidal tattooed bikers named Tiny, but the truth is that most of us only know that world second-hand.

Barbara Seranella, a nice girl from Pacific Palisades, walked the walk. She ran away from home at 14, hung out with outlaw motorcycle gangs, lived in a Haight Ashbury commune, partied hard and generally led a life outside of societal conventions, cramming a lifetime’s worth of experiences into a few crazy years.

From what I understand, by her 20s she had gotten sober, reconnected with her family and found a career that suited her idiosyncratic personality – she became a female auto mechanic. Eventually, she rose to service manager and married the boss.

I like to think that during her wild years, Barbara was already collecting the experiences and characters that she’d one day turn into fiction.

By the 1990s, she’d found her way into writing classes. In 1997, her first book “No Human Involved” featuring Munch Mancini, came out. This is how it starts:

"Buy you a drink?"

Munch turned to size up the man who spoke to her. His sad, baggy eyes were set in a basset hound face. A five o'clock shadow rolled in and out of the loose folds of skin on his cheeks and chins. Deep lines creased his forehead. She squinted a little to bring him into focus, then looked at her glass. There was only ice left.

What the hell. She shrugged an indifferent acceptance.

"Jack Daniels, black label." She always said "Black Label," when she ordered. She didn't know what it meant or if it was any better than any other colored label, but she liked the way it sounded.
Over eight books set in the 1970s and ’80s, biker girl Munch would give up hooking, get straight and sober, adopt a child, work as a mechanic, find love and lose it, open her own limousine company and struggle to walk the path of righteousness.

Munch lived in a ‘starter house’ in the slums of Santa Monica, back when blue-collar people could still afford to buy there. Barbara’s books are a gritty but nostalgic ride through a Westside that has changed so much in a mere handful of years that it’s almost historic – the only sawdust-floor biker bars in Venice today are faux retro ones. Barbara wasn’t only good with plot and character, she was great with local color and ambience.

Of course, I hadn’t read her yet during those days. I was working as a journalist and reading a lot of classic crime novels instead. Then my first book came out in 2001 and I started hearing about another female Southern California writer with a gritty style and a tough, independent sleuth. I wanted to meet Barbara, but what I’d read intimidated me so much that I was a little nervous.

We finally connected when we spoke on a panel together at the Camarillo Library. Barbara picked me up for the long drive in her big white Cadillac. The two of us and author Taylor Smith yakked the whole way up, enjoying ourselves and not even minding the horrible weeknight traffic.

It was then I learned what so many others have long known – Barbara, despite her sometimes gruff, raunchy exterior, was one of the warmest, funniest, most generous people in the mystery community. She’d long ago traded motorcycles for golf, communal life for matrimony. She’d become an inspiration to other writers and a quiet help to those struggling with sobriety and dysfunction.

I knew Barbara more as a fellow writer and acquaintance than a close friend, but for several years we were stablemates at Scribner and even shared the same editor, the legendary Susanne Kirk, who discovered female mystery authors from Patricia Cornwell to Janet Evanovich, Linda Fairstein and Kathy Reichs.

On the night we met, Barbara told me in her typical blunt fashion, “You know, I wanted to dislike your new book, because I thought, who’s this new Scribner author who’s getting so much attention.” She went on to then tell me how much she had liked it. Coming from her, it meant a lot.

Even as she struggled with two liver transplants in two years and failing health, Barbara kept her grace under fire and her sense of humor, and her books continued to win accolades and praise. Her latest, “An Unacceptable Death” got starred reviews in Library Journal and Publishers’ Weekly, was an LA Times Bestseller and a finalist for the Southern California Booksellers Association for “Best Mystery of 2005.”

And despite her mounting health problems, she managed to write one last book, “Deadman’s Switch,” which will hit the stores in April and was meant to launch a new series.

Last fall, Barbara won the Dennis Lynds Memorial Award for Social Consciousness in Crime Fiction. As the chair of the judging panel, I can say that the decision was unanimous. Barbara brought so much to the genre over the years and we wanted to recognize her contribution. I’m just sorry she was too sick to attend the banquet to receive the award in person.

RIP Barbara, you’re in a better place.

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