A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder at the Petroglyphs by Patricia Smith Wood

Once again, Patricia Smith Wood has crafted an intricate puzzle of a mystery. In short, tight chapters, she reveals the discovery of a death, and the process of solving how a body came to be where it was—but this is no simple question of who done it. The twists and surprises keep coming. Wood’s books always give my brain a good workout trying to follow the clues. The relationships among her cast of professional and amateur sleuths makes the involvement of amateurs more plausible than in the average amateur sleuth mystery. Another reason to get involved is this: Harrie McKinsey has prophetic dreams, and in one of them she sees the dead body at Petroglyphs National Monument.

There are so many facets to the mystery, so many contributing investigators—FBI, CIA, and Albuquerque Police Department, as well as Harrie and her friends and colleagues at her editing service—Wood did well not to have major subplots. It’s unusual in what is technically a cozy mystery, but it was the right choice. Most cozies have romantic subplots, but the central characters here are in established relationships. Most cozies are comic. Though many of the characters in this book display a natural and engaging sense of humor, it isn’t a comic mystery. It’s cozy in the sense of limiting onstage violence and having amateur participation, with much mystery-solving taking place over dinner or coffee.

I enjoyed the various Albuquerque settings, from restaurants to major parks like the Petroglyphs to local secrets like the Hidden Park, and even an airfield used by drone enthusiasts.

Many scenes take place at Southwest Editing Services, Harrie’s business. I was surprised at the importance of paper copies as well as electronic copies of manuscripts in a professional editing service. I’d thought paper was a thing of the past, but apparently not. I learned something.

I would have liked a stronger thread connecting the opening and the ending. The title, the cover, the first chapter, and park ranger Nick Ellis’s deep connection to the spirits of the ancient ones made me expect more continuity on this theme. In fact, I initially expected a different kind of story altogether. Harrie doesn’t come across as having a mystical connection to the land and its history, so the sudden transfer of what has been Nick’s spiritual experience to her felt as if an editor said to bring that theme back. Harrie is already psychic about her life and family, and having her new dream come from the spirits struck me as out of character. A couple of backstory chapters and a few chunks of expository dialogue also felt like afterthoughts or requests for additions, rather than integral parts of the otherwise tightly woven plot.

The wrap-up of the mystery plot was one-hundred-percent unexpected, even though I figured out the borders of the puzzle. The explanation scene is realistic and well-structured. (I’m always grateful when a book doesn’t have one of these clichéd confessions from a killer holding protagonist at gunpoint.) Wood has real skill with crowd scenes. She can juggle six or eight people in a scene and never let the reader forget any of them.

Complexity is what she does best. If you like a mystery that puts your mind to work, you’ll enjoy this one.

Book Review: New Mexico Ghost Stories by Antonio Garcez

The land of enchantment is full of ghosts. Some of them scare you; some are just showing up for work. This book starts off with Santa Fe, where apparently some of the scariest ghosts in the state reside. A few are bland, but many of them are hair-raising and bone-chilling. Other parts of the state have some dark and terrifying ghosts as well, but not in such concentration.

Hospitals are, as one might expect, often haunted, as are private homes. However businesses, especially restaurants, have a disproportionate share of ghosts. A frequent pattern in haunting emerges. The former proprietor or employee of a business, or the former resident of place that’s now a business, stays around and does innocuous but strange things. I’m sure these events are startling and even frightening when experienced individually, but after a while, I began to wonder why deceased women tend to haunt in white dresses and red dresses. And why female business owners in particular are most inclined to keep showing up for work after they die.

There are a few gentle, loving ghosts who come back to visit family, and even the ghost of a monkey who died on his way to be in a circus.

The author occasionally spends too much time, in my opinion, on background stories that aren’t ghost stories, but for readers unfamiliar with New Mexico, this is probably valuable material. His writing style can be clunky in places, and he overuses exclamation marks, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise rich and intriguing book. He collected the stories one by one through interviews with people who experienced each ghost, and his accounts of these meetings give depth to the tales.

*****

Yes, I know this is not remotely holiday-themed, but I finished the book and wanted to review it. I wish all my readers the best of the holiday season, in whatever way you celebrate it.

New Release: Shadow Family

The Seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

An old flame, an old friend, and the ghost of an old enemy.

 As the holidays approach, Mae Martin thinks the only challenge in her life is the choice between two men. Should she reunite with Hubert, her steady, reliable ex-husband? Or move forward with Jamie, her unpredictable not-quite-ex boyfriend? But then, two trespassers break into Hubert’s house on Christmas Eve to commit the oddest crime in the history of Tylerton, North Carolina.

Hubert needs to go home to Tylerton and asks Mae to go with him, though it’s the last place she wants to be. Reluctantly, she agrees, but before they can leave, a stranger shows up at her house in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico looking for her stepdaughters, bringing the first news of their birth mother in seven years—news of her death.

The girls are finally ready to learn about her, but she was a mystery, not only to the husband and children she walked away from, but also to the friends in her new life. Now her past throws its shadow on them all. Through psychic journeys, unplanned road trips, and risky decisions, Mae searches for the truth about the woman whose children she raised, determined to protect them from the dark side of their family.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

*****

 Barnes and Noble   Kobo   Apple   ScribD   Amazon (Kindle and paperback)

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman took her time to get to know retired Navajo Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn before writing a book that spends at least half its pages in his point of view, and her study of the character her father created pays off. The interwoven crime stories—a case Leaphorn works on as a private investigator and one Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee work on for the tribal police—are told with excellent attention to police and PI procedures as well as the personal experiences of the investigators. I appreciate the realism of Bernie’s work days—she’s never just devoted to one case, but is pulled in various directions by minor crimes as well interacting with the FBI on a homicide.

The individual stories of the crime victims and the people around them are as intriguing the process of solving the crime. Hillerman skillfully weaves Bernie’s family and Leaphorn’s life situation into the plot. I grew so involved in his and Louisa’s relationship, it was as if old friends were having these difficulties. And for me, they practically are old friends. Hillerman writes as if readers already know her primary characters—what they look like, how old they are, and their history with each other. This far into a series, I prefer it that way. Little to no backstory.

The final scene with the killer was, as in so many mysteries, more confessional than struck me as likely, but on the plus side, the context was plausible. Overall, the pace and the complexity were excellent. And the threads of history and culture woven throughout are never dumped, but crafted into the scenes.

I’m curious what the next book will bring. No one managed to get through to the overconfident, misogynistic rookie, Wilson Sam. Is he going to get in trouble? And will it be Jim Chee’s turn for a lead role? I love how Anne Hillerman writes his dialogue, especially his humor, but in the latest book she doesn’t get inside his head quite as deeply she does with Bernie and with Leaphorn. But I think she could, and I would love to see such a book.

Digression: A minor thing confused me. The Navajo custom of not naming the dead doesn’t seem to be observed consistently by anyone in this book. In any culture, there are variations from person to person in adherence to traditions. The museum director Mrs. Pinto says outright she doesn’t believe in chindis, so her naming the deceased fits with her beliefs. Later in the narration the author mentions that the particularly sensitive time after a death, the time during which one doesn’t speak of the dead, has passed. But I thought the name still wasn’t spoken for a longer time after those four days, and characters I thought were more traditional, like one victim’s father, do speak her name. I know Hillerman does her research, so I was puzzled why this seemed different from the way the practice is portrayed in other books in the series. Or maybe it really wasn’t, and this is just my perception, my need for one little piece of backstory.

Note: This book, like all of Hillerman’s, is set not exclusively in New Mexico, but on the Navajo Reservation, part of which is in New Mexico.

Relief and other updates

The relief feels wonderful and yet disorienting. It’s hard to adapt. I have my life back. Book seven in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, Shadow Family, is with my editor now. I sent it off last night—actually, at around 3:30 in the morning. I know my editor will be sending me sections to revise, but today, I can think about the next book. I can even write a blog post.

Relief came with rain as well. September is still summer, the grand finale of the monsoon season, with temperatures in the eighties, cooler than August by a long shot. It’s rained three times—one drizzle, one thunderstorm with hail and two inches of rain in two hours, and one nice steady all-night rain. Wow! The jewel-colored greater earless lizards need to sunbathe and get warm. When it’s cloudy, they hug the rocks with their wee limbs, seeking every last bit of sunbaked heat from the surface. The baby lizards are out, flawless miniatures of the adults, no bigger than a bug with a tail. I marvel at their toes, and at their orange stripes and green legs, their little eyes blinking up at me. Desert plants are in bloom, yellow chamisa and something purple—maybe some kind of sage. And with all the rain, Turtleback Mountain is more green than red.

The other night I went for a walk with a friend and his dog, hoping to see bats over the wetland by the river, but it was too windy for them. As we were leaving Rotary Park, which is right on the Rio Grande, a coyote started yipping and singing on the bank directly below where we’d been standing a minute earlier while my friend took a dead bird away from his dog. The dog, strangely, wasn’t interested in the coyote, only the dead bird. A whole coyote chorus started across the river as the one on our side would sing and the others would answer. The dog still didn’t care.

White rabbit update. First, her former owner said he only had females, so I’m now calling her “she.” Second, she’s been chased by dogs and by a cat, and someone sprayed weed killer on all the plants she used to nibble on in the yard of the empty trailer across the alley. Fortunately, she finds shelter in our yard. I decided to feed her nightly after all, because I’m going to try a new way to catch her. Her future owners brought a live trap, and we baited it with sliced pears and fresh greens. It may be shocking for her to go to her usual buffet and have a door close behind her, but she’ll escape predators and poisons to be loved and petted. And then it’ll be her turn be relieved. If all goes well, her new owner will show her in the county fair. Because she is so beautiful.

 

Anniversary Sale

Two years ago today, June 2, I was half-way across the country, moving from Virginia to New Mexico. I’d lived in Santa Fe previously and left for a job in northeastern North Carolina, where I found the setting for The Calling. I always knew I’d be back, and when I discovered Truth or Consequences, I was instantly caught in the vortex. I knew I would live here someday.

In Shaman’s Blues, Mae Martin moves to T or C. Unlike me, she’s never seen it before. Never been to New Mexico. Doesn’t know a soul in town except her father. Join her on the adventure and celebrate my anniversary.

Click here for 99 cent sale

Slowness

In honor of the Turtle, the local deity of Truth or Consequences who rests atop Turtleback Mountain, I contemplate the virtues of going slowly.

A friend who came in next-to-last in a marathon told me with pride that it took a special kind of endurance to keep on going for such a long time at her slow pace, especially mental endurance. It was a good insight. After all, she had no illusion she could win. Her motivation was personal and internal. She wasn’t competing, just completing.

I’m a slow writer. I write daily and have no shortage of inspirations. What takes time is depth.  I have to know what every character is thinking and feeling, discover the subterranean aspects of my lead characters’ minds, the emotions they themselves might not be touch with, and become aware of potential interactions at that level as well as in the mystery plot.

The style of yoga I study and teach is slow, not flow. The psychological state of flow occurs, but the asanas are explored in depth rather than in a fast-flowing sequence. I’m taking a twelve-week workshop with the teacher who first trained me to teach. In each weekly session, we study two or three asanas that have similar patterns in the body, attending to the subtle organization, the inner details. Seventy-five minutes on just utkatasana, warrior one, and warrior three was fascinating.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy anything fast. I love dancing to fast-paced music and reading fast-paced novels. Sometimes, in my personal yoga practice, I do a vigorous vinyasa. Speed is energizing. To achieve it with skill, though, the writer, dancer, or yogi first has to master slowness.

I look at the mountain and realize there’s more. The Turtle has mastered stillness.

*****

Turtleback image by Donna Catterick, whose photography graces the covers of Death Omen and Small Awakenings.