With an Extreme Burning by Bill Pronzini (1994)
I've been going on a Pronzini-athon the past two months and the next book in the pile was this 20-year-old thriller. (Actually, the book I read was the 2000 Leisure Books reprint retitled The Tormentor. And nowhere in the book does the publisher indicate the original title. Go figure.)
For three weeks, ever since the tragic death of his wife in a car crash, Dix Mallory has been getting crank telephone calls. No words, just heavy breathing. Now the caller actually speaks, telling Dix in a disguised voice that his wife had been unfaithful to him the last three months of her life and detailing the trysts she was supposed to have had. A few days later a box appears on his step. Inside were his wife's favorite custom-made earrings, the ones she was wearing the night she died. Now Dix begins to think that his wife's death was nt an accident, but murder.
At the same time his wife's best friend, divorced Francesca Bellini, has been getting similar calls -- just raspy breathing at the beginning and then recently moving on to sexual comments about her 17-year-old daughter Amy.
This cruel game of torment escalates, throwing Dix Mallory and Cecca Bellini together to discover the truth about these calls. Soon they realize that their tormentor is someone they know, perhaps a close friend. Then the deaths begin -- supposed accidents but Dix and Cecca know that there is a killer out there and that they are in the killer's sights.
There are suspects aplenty and Pronzini does a good job spreading (and hiding) clues. I had a pretty good idea who the tormentor was but it was not until the final third of the book that the clue was dropped giving the motive for the acts of terror. And, frankly, Dix and Cecca were pretty dumb not to figure out who was after them sooner than they actually did. This is a minor quibble because the basis of the book is the slowly suffocating atmosphere of terror that has engulfed these two. Everyone around them appears to be hiding something and Dix and Cecca discover that they dare not trust any of their friends.
This one, like many other thrillers, is a book you read just to go along for the ride, and the ride is an enjoyable one for the reader, if not for the main characters.