A New Mexico Mystery Review: Stargazer by Anne Hillerman

The protagonists have kept this series strong for years. Hillerman develops them further with each book. As an elder, Joe Leaphorn is still growing and learning. Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee navigate the challenges of their police work and their marriage. And the new characters are memorable and deep. The multiple suspects in the crime were all plausible, and I was never sure who was responsible until near the end. The settings are intriguing. The Alamo Navajo Reservation near Socorro, New Mexico is a lesser known section of the Navajo Nation, yet still part of the nation and its culture. Also near Socorro is the Very Large Array, the site of high tech studies of the stars. The victim, a scientist who worked there—the star gazer of the title—is revealed in depth as a person.

Anne Hillerman has knack for creating colorful, utterly real, and very regional people as minor characters, also. Bernie’s attempt to serve a warrant on Melvin Shorty presents one of these gems. And how Shorty behaves in the end is true to the way he and Bernie met as human beings, not just as officer and law breaker.

Hillerman gives realistic complexity to the characters’ lives. Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito are never dealing with just one case. There’s a primary mystery plot, but there are other demands on their professional time as well, including a painfully sad case Bernie stumbles across while attempting to deal with stray cattle. The leads’ private lives are not neglected by the author or the characters. I like having fully functional sleuths. They attend to their relationships and friendships, not just their work.

The author’s prior writing career in nonfiction serves her well. She integrates research  fluidly as needed, resulting in a poetic balance between the science at the Very Large Array and Bernie’s Navajo view of the stars and constellations.

The ending is satisfying. Major issues are wrapped up, yet the reader is left thinking about the characters’ future plans.

No spoilers, but Joe Leaphorn’s encounter with a child who is traveling alone is wonderful. And if you read the author’s notes at the end, that scene gets even better. Hillerman’s notes are as good as the story, as she shares more about the Very Large Array, Navajo cosmology, and her writing process.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Treasure of Victoria Peak

This true story would make a great movie, featuring a hidden treasure and a huge cast of characters trying to get hold of it despite the claim of the stubborn widow of the original finder, Doc Noss.

Doc, a Cheyenne foot doctor of no known medical credentials, had an office in what was then Hot Springs, now Truth or Consequences. He was reputed to be skilled in treating foot ailments, whether or not he was real doctor. Once he found treasure while out deer hunting, his life changed, and not for the better. He had a lot to worry about—more gold and ancient Spanish artifacts than he could remove from the cavern in Victorio Peak. (The mountain is named after Victorio, the Apache war chief. I’m not sure how or why Koury or perhaps his publisher renamed it Victoria.)

The book chronicles Doc Noss’s adventures, his sudden and dramatic death, court case after court case, subsequent treasure searches, and Ova Noss’s years of fighting to retain her right to the treasure and get permission to dig it up. Once the peak was made part of the White Sands Missile Range, Mrs. Noss had to go up against everyone from the U.S. military and F. Lee Bailey to the woman who claimed to be her late husband’s other widow.

Attorney for Mrs. Noss Phil H. Koury has a penchant for detail. As you might expect, he tells his story with an emphasis on the legal battles, but it’s never dull or confusing, and he has a humorous flair. He recounts the treasure hunt scenes he witnessed with apt observations of character and settings. The process of solving this mystery during a time when communication was slower increases the suspense. I rooted for Mrs. Noss all the way. Since this is a true story, the plot doesn’t necessarily turn the way a work of fiction would, but that makes it no less compelling.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Kaye George

I’m a huge fan of the People of the Wind series. It’s a pleasure to have Kaye George as my guest today to talk about the latest book in the series, Death in the New Land, which I recently reviewed.

BIO: Kaye George, award-winning novelist and short-story writer, writes cozy and traditional mysteries and a prehistory series, which are both traditionally and self-published: two cozy series, Fat Cat and Vintage Sweets; two traditionals featuring Cressa Carraway and Imogene Duckworthy; and the People of the Wind prehistory Neanderthal mysteries.  Over fifty of her short stories have also appeared, mostly in anthologies and magazines. She reviews for Suspense Magazine and writes a column for Mysterical-E. She lives in Knoxville TN.

AF: What drew you to writing about prehistory? And about Neanderthals in particular?

KG: I became more and more excited about Neanderthals after the genome was first sequenced and so much was being learned about them, almost every week. About that time, I read something in a short story magazine by a guy who writes an ancient Roman character. Someone asked him why he wrote about Romans and he said that he thinks the further back you go, the better. I remember saying this out loud. “I can go WAY further back than that.” The idea was born and I started working on it.

AF: The language you use in the narration of this series is unique. Simple, a bit formal, and lacking certain constructions normal to English such as “taller.” The Hamapa concept is “more tall.” Did the speech patterns come to you intuitively? Did you construct them consciously?

KG: I had many versions of the language, both in narration and in their communication. At the time, I lived in Austin and had an excellent critique group who met in a book store every week. I brought version after version to them and most did not work.

When I started in on this, the thinking was that Neanderthals could not speak. I also knew that their brains were larger than ours. To solve both those problems, I decided to give them telepathy, using that brain. I was reading Temple Grandin and learned that she thinks in pictures rather than words. She also posits that animals think in pictures. Ms. Grandin is autistic and a renowned animal handler. A cattleman was having trouble getting his animals to enter a narrow, dark passage and he appealed to her for help. She immediately saw that the passage was dark, and had confusing light in it. When the animals could see clearly where they were going, they went with no problems at all.

This made me think that my Neanderthals should communicate solely with pictures. You can imagine how cumbersome that was! It didn’t work at all. Then newer theories came out that they probably could talk. Their voice boxes did not last all those thousands of years to be fossilized, which was the basis for the first theory, but the second one is based on the fact that they did actually have all the structures to be able to speak.

One early reader told me she didn’t want to see modern people dressed as Neanderthals in my books. I didn’t either! I had to give them a language at this point. I studied how children first learn to speak, how people who have trouble speaking are helped, and what the universal sounds are among many languages. I gave them a language with sounds in the front of the mouth, which are easiest to pronounce. But I didn’t have them speaking very much because I still like the telepathy idea.

As for the narrative, I wanted it to convey something of another time, a vastly different time. So I made my own grammar rules. No contractions, nor –er and –est comparatives, and a few more. I wanted it to be slightly stilted, but readable. I hope I accomplished that.

AF: What was the hardest part of writing this book? And what was the most fun?

KG: I guess the research is both, the hardest and the most fun. At least the most rewarding anyway. I do find creating my characters and following them through their lives and adventures satisfying also. But the best of all of this is having fans like you who appreciate the series.

AF: Thank you. Your fictional Neanderthal tribe, the Hamapa, migrate to the place that later became New Mexico. What made you choose this location?

KG: I’m not sure. I did calculations using Google maps to see how far they could get in a day, at my best guesstimate anyway. I found a detailed study of the terrain in that area, around Tucumcari Mountain, so I knew I could portray it accurately, as it was those thousands of years ago. I also liked the idea of the mountain, or mesa, itself, because it’s so distinctive looking. I thought that I could describe it accurately (it hasn’t changed much since then, except for what grows there and lives there) and people could figure out where this was. I actually pictured having it on the cover, but my publisher came up with such a good one, that I let that idea go.

AF: Your research is impressive, and I appreciate the way you share tidbits of it at the beginnings of chapters. Is there anything you learned that you wish you’d been able to fit into a book but couldn’t—some favorite fact or discovery you’d like to share?

KG: I’ve mentioned my love for the mega fauna of the last Ice Age. I have a bare mention of giant beavers in a legend told by the Storyteller, and a meeting with a glyptodont in the new land, but I wish I could cram a lot more of these fascinating animals into the plots. It’s hard to make up reasons to stick them in there! What would be fun would be movies of these with the mega fauna portrayed on a big screen. Or a little one, if people are watching at home.

AF: You’ve blended history with fiction, with deviations from the record in some cases and adherence to the facts in others. How did you choose this blend?

KG: My one main deviation, as I’ve said, it locating the tribe in what is now North America, and locating a bunch of other types of people there also. These all did live concurrently on this planet, but many did not meet each other. I liked to think about what would happen if they did, so I wrote that. My other “invention” isn’t a deviation, since the social structure isn’t known, and probably never will be. But the matriarchal society is my idea, kind of as a feminist, and kind of for logical reasons.

In everything else, I try to stick to the facts as we know them. What their art and dwellings were like, how they hunted, how they lived, what they ate and wore, clothing and burial methods. The ancient flute is controversial, but I took the stance that it was an actual instrument and that they made it and used it.

AF: The Hamapa are a female-led society. Can you share your process in creating the roles they assign to females and to males?

KG: I wanted an elder female for the leader, and she had to have a mate, even though she didn’t always keep the same one. When I decided to give them handed-down folklore, I had to have a person designated to learn it and to tell it, so that’s the Storyteller. It made sense that one person would know the most about healing herbs and practices, so she’s the Healer. Her son may one day succeed her, and none of the other roles aside from leader are gender specific. One guy is the best at flint knapping, one at making clothing, several are the best at throwing spears, and one is innately good at tracking people and animals. And, since fire was probably very important to them, one person is assigned to be the Firetender as his full time job. I tried not to have strict division of labor, but for people to naturally find where their talents lie.

AF: I know you have multiple series to keep up with, but this one is my personal favorite. Will there be another People of the Wind book?

KG: I’m ending this one so it can wrap up and end the series. I’m not saying I won’t write another one, but I’m not planning on it now. These are intense and difficult to pull together and, although I love doing them, I’ll take a break and maybe think about it later.

AF: Is there anything you wish I’d asked you but didn’t? Feel free to answer that question now.

KG: I might mention how hard it was to get this published. When you write the only series in a genre, no one knows what to do with it. I queried every agent on the planet and it was well-received, but no contracts. One agent told me she loved it, it’s “better than Jean Auel” (author of the Clan of the Cave Bear books), but that she had no idea how to sell it (to a publisher). I wanted to tell them to look at Harry Potter and maybe try harder, but I didn’t. I finally found a publisher who loves the series and has done everything they can for me and for these books. I couldn’t be happier than I am at Untreed Reads, unless I could sell a million copies. Somehow.

AF: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I appreciate getting an inside look at these books.

*****

To purchase books by Kaye George, click here.

Visit Kaye’s website

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Death in the New Land by Kaye George

In this third book in the People of the Wind series, the Neanderthal tribe the Hamapa have escaped the growing ice in their former homelands to the north and found refuge in a place where the sun is hot—prehistoric New Mexico, where mammoths and giant capybaras roam. Despite the strange wildlife and the denser vegetation, the buttes and mountains and caves felt familiar to this modern New Mexican.

The word use and thought processes of the characters fascinated me. Blending deep research with creative breaks from the historical record, Kaye George has created a complete culture, with language, rituals, and social customs. The Hamapa seldom speak, but use a form of communication that while fictional feels plausible. They and other Neanderthal tribes are telepathic, sharing ideas and images directly. To them, the “Tall Ones” the closest beings to modern humans in this book, seem noisy with their constant talking.

The Hamapa have no preconceived archetype of a detective or an investigation. A murder and the disappearance of a child distress them, but they’re dealing with hostile tribes, their own migration and resettlement, and the need to hunt. The protagonist, Enga Dancing Flower, is determined to find the child and to learn who killed a tribal elder, but she’s not at leisure to do what the lead character in a modern setting would do. I found this deviation from the expected genre conventions briefly disorienting, then refreshing. It’s true to the People. The mystery is solved in their way.

The novel is as much an adventure as a mystery, a saga of the Hamapa filled with the drama of hunts, battles, explorations, love stories, and discoveries. The writing style gives the reader the sense of being inside the mind of a very different type of human, yet a recognizable one nonetheless. I was wrapped up in the story, moment by moment, seeing through Neanderthal eyes.

Though one can read this book as a standalone, I highly recommend the first two books in the series, which introduce the tribe in their original homeland and then follow them on their journey south. Many of us have a little Neanderthal DNA. Enjoy some time with your ancestors.

Purchase the series

Author web site

An interview with the author will follow in my next post.

New Release: Chloride Canyon, Mae Martin Book Eight

Chloride Canyon

 The eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Could a faked haunting in a ghost town stir up a real one?

Mae Martin’s college summer session is off to a rough start. A classmate is out to make her life miserable. Her English professor is avoiding her. And the Paranormal Activities Club plans to investigate her psychic abilities. Her boyfriend, Jamie, is on a song-writing retreat in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, population fourteen humans, twenty-three cats, and—supposedly—zero ghosts. He’s working with a famous friend who doesn’t want Mae, or anyone, to visit. But then Jamie’s neighbor claims her house is haunted, and Mae has to learn who’s behind the frightening events—the living, or the dead.

The Mae Martin Series

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

Buy

Coming Soon: Chloride Canyon, the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Chloride Canyon

The eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Could a faked haunting in a ghost town stir up a real one?

Mae Martin’s college summer session is off to a rough start. A classmate is out to make her life miserable. Her English professor is avoiding her. And the Paranormal Activities Club plans to investigate her psychic abilities. Her boyfriend, Jamie, is on a song-writing retreat in the ghost town of Chloride, New Mexico, population fourteen humans, twenty-three cats, and—supposedly—zero ghosts. He’s working with a famous friend who doesn’t want Mae, or anyone, to visit. But then Jamie’s neighbor claims her house is haunted, and Mae has to learn who’s behind the frightening events—the living, or the dead.

The Mae Martin Series

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

 

 

A Writing Update

I’ve completed multiple rounds of revision on Chloride Canyon, the eighth Mae Martin mystery. Since I’ve been working on it for years, I can’t give you a number, but the most recent are: the revisions based on feedback from critique partners and beta readers; another pass through the book focused on what the antagonist characters were up to offstage; and the “cut revision,” pruning  restatements, over-statements, overused words, and filler words.

Now I’m into the read-aloud revision, acting the story as if I were an audiobook narrator, which helps with pace and dialogue. This stage gets it ready for editing. It’s due with my editor in late March. Look for it to be published in time for summer reading.

One of these pictures of the canyon will end up on the cover. Special thanks to Donna Catterick for her photography.

What’s at Stake?

How many personal threats can the protagonist of an amateur sleuth series face? Perhaps you’ve marveled at how often the lead characters in long-running series encounter murders, but then suspended disbelief and kept reading. I’ve done it myself. Then I get distracted by scenes in which friends of the lead character point out the very thing I’ve just put aside. Gosh, you sure you do get involved in a lot of murders. It’s one way for an author to handle the problem, though. Acknowledge it and keep telling the story.

It’s been a while since I blogged about my writing process. At present, I’m in the final revision stage for Chloride Canyon, the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery. I’ve received valuable feedback from several beta readers and critique partners. Now I’m blending their various insights into the plot, cleaning up problems they noticed, and raising the stakes—the one thing three out of four suggested I do.

That’s the hardest part. A professional detective wants to solve a crime, and cares because it’s a job. However, I have that amateur problem. My mysteries aren’t about murder, but they sometimes involve crimes. Others center around wrongs that are harmful, but not criminal. Mae’s reasons to get involved can be deeply personal or tied to people she cares about. In several of the books, she’s hired as a psychic to solve a mystery. In the majority of cases, the stake for Mae is empathic rather than a direct threat. What makes the plot work is a serious risk to the emotional, financial and/or physical well-being of others.

The two antagonists in Chloride Canyon create stress in Mae’s life at college, but they don’t endanger her. Her constant challenges in the series include choices about using her psychic ability and how to handle her sometimes excessive urge to help people. In this book, by helping friends, she ends up also having to help her enemies. Will this be enough to make readers care? Only if there’s enough of a threat. And it can’t always be a threat to Mae if I want the arc of the series to be believable. How can I raise the stakes for her, then? By raising the stakes for characters she cares about.

Okay. I’ve figured it out. Back to work on revisions.

 

Slow but Deep

Many writers are participating in NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—aiming to compete 50,000 words of a first draft in November. I cheer them on, but I won’t be doing it myself. I don’t work well at that speed. I tried writing fast recently, as I was working on chapter three of book nine in the Mae Martin Series, and I realized the next day that I’d ignored the characters deeper inclinations in order to make Something Exciting happen. I had to go back, delete most of it, and change what remained. If I go fast, I also make incomprehensible typos and even end up typing in the middle of a previous line somehow. In the long run,  writing slowly while listening to the characters hearts and letting what drives them drive the plot is the best way for me to make Something Exciting happen.

Some writers can do this while producing over 1,600 words a day, or through an outline. Not me. The closest I’ve come was when I outlined the initial premise for each of the short stories in Gifts and Thefts, following the path through my main characters’ lives in 2012 and half of 2013. And even then, a new theme emerged I hadn’t planned on. In response, I improvised the middle story, Guardian Angel, with no plan at all. I guess it’s not a Mae Martin Mystery, since it’s about her boyfriend, not her, and while mysterious, it’s not a mystery to be solved the way the other five stories are. But it fits those stories together like the keystone of an arch.

I mentioned book nine at the beginning of this post, and you may be wondering what happened to book eight. I’ve gotten feedback on it from two critique partners and am waiting to hear from two beta readers later this month. (What’s the difference? Critique partners swap manuscripts and provide feedback to each other; beta readers do the critique without reciprocity. I love beta reading for writers whose series I follow, getting to be the first to read the next book.)

The eighth Mae Martin Mystery will get a final in-depth revision based on those four critiques, and then I’ll send it to my editor. Since Gifts and Thefts came out in spring 2021, I’d love to have book eight, Chloride Canyon, come out in spring 2022. And that’s why I’m starting on book nine already. Maybe I’ll finish it in a year. Chloride Canyon has been in in progress for four years, with breaks to write Shadow Family and Gifts and Thefts. That was slow, even for me.

 

 

New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied the Woman at Otowi Crossing by J. Michael Orenduff

The question is not only why someone killed a man crossing the Old Town plaza toward Hubie’s shop, but who the man was. And why he wanted to see Hubie.

Like all Pot Thief mysteries, this one takes the reader on entertaining detours which turn out to be part of the plot. Unconventional though it is, the book is well-paced. (There are a few genuine digressions, but they aren’t dull. I can’t object to Hubie reciting a list of New Mexico mystery writers in order to prove his extraordinary memory.) The trips to Silver City and to Tucumcari are educational as well as revealing. The Albuquerque settings and many of the characters are familiar, of course, to series fans. I especially enjoy Hubie’s conversations with his friend Susannah. She disagrees with him more than others close to him do, which makes for lively reading, especially when they’re trying to solve a crime. Many amusing scenes satirize academia. There are also moving, touching moments such as Freddy’s return to freedom. No spoilers. It’s an extraordinary moment. And the solution to the mystery is also emotionally profound.

I was glad to see Hubie commit a little breaking and entering toward the end. I was afraid he’d given up on that sort of thing. He thieves no pots in this book, an activity which I miss, but he does steal something of great personal value to himself. And to solving the mystery. And after all her years of reading mysteries and roping calves, Susannah contributes heroically as well.