Vanessa A. Ryan picked the perfect background for a murder mystery in Santa Fe: rich people, not-so rich artists, and crime and corruption in the city’s art world.
First, some relevant local data: In the Santa Fe Reporter’s 2013-14 Annual Manual, the city’s population was given as 68,642 residents. The more recent Manual didn’t give us the population number, but both editions say that the City Different has four art galleries per 1,000 residents. That’s a lot of art. After city government, it’s the primary business in town, aside from tourism. Santa Fe is ranked the number one city for air quality in the country, and has 320 days of sunshine a year, which may be part of the reason it’s the fourth happiest city. I’ll second that. Music and dancing and general festivity are a way of life. The downside? The cost of living in Santa Fe is 17.7% higher than the national average. Maybe that’s why it’s not the happiest city. But without all those wealthy people, the art scene would die. It’s a necessary symbiosis—and central to this story.
Insurance administrator Lana Davis comes to Santa Fe looking for the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. As soon as she starts her search, the plot gets complicated. I can find my way around Santa Fe’s oddly configured streets without a map, but I couldn’t figure out whodunit. This is a classic puzzle type of murder mystery. Everyone’s a suspect, and I mean, everyone.
The behind-the-scenes look at an art gallery was intriguing. A lot of the little details—how important it is to some people to be invited to a benefit auction, the way rich people can tell who’s really one of them but poor artists can’t, and even snobbery about fauxdobe—also give the book an “insider” feel.
Lana is an amusing narrator. She’s basically good but willing to bend rules just enough to take some risks she shouldn’t take, and she’s cool enough not to get as freaked out by death, danger and violence as most people would. If she were an animal, she’d be a cat: independent, self-sufficient, and persistent and clever in the chase. She has nine lives, too, and is good at landing on her feet—at least figuratively. This makes her a good fit for the amateur sleuth role—the personality has to be believable for the premise of the amateur investigator to work. More sensitive or rule-following folks wouldn’t dare get into the situations she does. I think there are two kinds of series protagonists: the ones we identify with, and the ones we would like to be for a day. Lana is the second kind.
Ryan is a polished story-teller. If you like tight plotting, a great setting and a fast pace, this is your book.
Next week, author—and artist—Vanessa A. Ryan is my guest for an interview