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TV REVIEW : ‘Nova’ Makes Sparks Fly in Whodunit ‘Hunt’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With its recent program on the search for the real Anastasia and, tonight, “Hunt for the Serial Arsonist,” PBS’ “Nova” science series is getting seriously hooked on whodunits. The surprises turned up in this new mystery might even make for sleepless nights.

A kind of vector of multiple sciences, arson investigation proves to be a brilliant vehicle for producer Carl Charlson to show how chemistry, computer science, fingerprint analysis, physics and psychology provide the key tools in stopping a person addicted to setting fires.

The disturbing element for local viewers is that Charlson’s case history is a wave of arson jobs that hits San Luis Obispo, Bakersfield and south across the Los Angeles area from the late ‘80s through 1991.

Worst of all is finding out who did it. The revelation topples the presumptions of even the most veteran L.A. arson sleuths, and dramatizes the powerful alchemy produced by fire and a small, sick, impotent mind.

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Not stupid, however. Investigators discover that the fires, always hitting businesses, lacked any of the kinds of accelerants typically used--gas, kerosene, paint thinner. As Sherlock Holmes reminds, the culprit eventually makes a mistake: In this case, unburned time-delay starting devices made of a cigarette wrapped with matches in a rubber band, all enclosed in paper sheets. Fingerprints on the paper start the hunt in earnest.

At each step of the investigation, the report dips into each relevant scientific specialty (the chemical makeup of a burning match makes the mundane into a kind of magic). Being “Nova,” it has to. But the simple manhunt is where “Hunt” becomes eerie drama. Suddenly, “Nova” doesn’t feel like “Nova” anymore.

* “Hunt for the Serial Arsonist” airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and at 8 p.m. Wednesday on KOCE-TV Channel 50.


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