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.

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.

*****

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Caught in the Vortex

I’m a guest today on fellow New Mexico mystery writer Donnell Ann Bell’s blog. Talking about my discovery of T or C, and Mae Martin’s connection with the town as well.

“I could live here,” said a voice in my head. It was two in the morning. I’d walked into my room at The Charles Motel and Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico after driving across the country in two days to make the most of my spring break, and so far I’d seen nothing of the town.  Follow this link to read more.

 

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.

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

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

The second Sonny Baca novel is not just a sequel, but a continuation of a journey through the four seasons and the four sacred directions that began in book one, Zia Summer. Sonny, the great-grandson of legendary New Mexico lawman Elfego Baca, grows as heir to his bisabuelo’s role and also in his spirituality and capacity for love.

To recover from the soul sickness caused by a murder he dealt with in the first book, Sonny seeks healing from a curandera. The healing is his initiation into the spirit world and shamanic experiences, and it introduces the most compelling aspects of the story.

This private investigator character far from noir. Sonny is colorful, a flawed but basically virtuous young man strongly connected to his family, culture, and community. He’s realistic in many ways and yet also a larger-than-life hero who has mythic-scale adventures in his archetypal battle with Raven, the cult leader and domestic terrorist he pursued in the first book.

Sonny is hired by the Alburquerque International Balloon Fiesta when a balloonist who could have been a witness in a case involving Raven dies. (Get use to that extra r in Albuquerque as you read the series. It’s not a typo. Anaya restored it, though it fell off the city’s name a long time ago.) An intriguing aspect of the crime plot is the time period, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and the arms-and-drugs deals of that era. One of the themes is corruption.

The balloon fiesta itself, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, and the glory of October in New Mexico, are as central to the story as the characters. The author is so passionate about them he gets carried away sometimes, re-describing them more often than necessary. He also restates his themes a bit too often. I guess his editor didn’t dare tell the master cut, but these repetitions slow the pace. A reflection on autumn in the Rio Grande valley isn’t needed when lives are at stake. The book overall is still powerful. I mean this as praise when I say it has an occasional comic book quality—a fight scene with a leap off a balcony, a mad scientist scene, the invocation of special powers—because myths, archetypes, and superheroes are closely related.

The most complex characters aren’t the good ones or the evil ones, but two women who are torn between: Madge, the balloon fiesta director, and Tamara, Raven’s former follower. The Good Women aren’t filled out as well. Though their roles in Sonny’s life differ, his lover, Rita, restaurateur and herbalist, and the curandera, Lorenza, are virtually identical. This may be due to Sonny’s idealization of them—or the author’s.

Lorenza is Sonny’s new spiritual teacher. His neighbor don Eliseo, a traditional elder, was his teacher in the first book and remains one in this. I’ll be interested to see if each book in the series adds another teacher and how these teachers balance his spiritual wholeness by the end. Despite some excess verbiage, I’ll follow the rest of the series. After all, it’s excess verbiage by Anaya.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey

As always in this series, the opening is brilliant, followed by a colorful and intriguingly circuitous journey. If you’ve not yet discovered the pot thief books, think of them as off-beat cozies with an intellectual bent: nonviolent, humorous, character-centered, with a lot of cooking (some of it very funny—yes, recipes can be funny), and a romantic subplot. Unusual in the cozy mystery genre  are the male protagonist and the illegal nature of some of his activities.

In this book, for once Hubie is not stealing ancient pots (rescuing them, in his opinion) but teaching students how to make copies of them, and he’s doing it at the college that kicked him out of graduate school for digging up pots where he wasn’t supposed to be digging.

The portrayal of students, faculty, and administrators is satirical but rings true. Hubie, long out of touch with academic life, has a lot to learn to get back into it. He’s kind, but he’s also a tad opinionated and not a stickler for rules, so he gets off on the wrong foot with a few people—something Edward Abbey would understand.

The department meeting is hilarious (and made me glad I no longer have to attend them), but the best comic scene is the culmination of one of the romance subplots. A few of the discussions over drinks ramble on a bit, but they’re still entertaining.

Hubie’s reading of Edward Abbey assists his thinking, as the pot thief’s topic of study in each book does. I especially liked how his friend Susannah’s background in art history plays a key role in solving the murder. The mystery plot keeps turning. Each time I thought it had wrapped up, another twist came around.

Although this is basically a humorous book, it has some serious moments, and they’re handled with grace, in both the subplots and the mystery plot. The victim of the crime is given a place of honor in the story.

A new reader of the series could start here and not feel lost, but I recommend beginning with The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras and getting to know Hubie and his friends from the beginning.

*****

Click here for my 2016 interview with the author.