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: Murder on Frequency by Patricia Smith Wood

murder-on-frequency

A New Mexico man long missing and presumed dead seems to have come back to broadcast on ham radio, only to fade out as if something terrible has happened to him.

Patricia Smith Wood has crafted another tight puzzle of a mystery in this third in the Harrie McKinsey series, once again blending multiple mystery genres—a touch of cozy, a touch of police procedural, and now a touch of the PI story as well. Amateur sleuths Harrie and Ginger, the Albuquerque police department, and the FBI come together on a complex case with help from a new character, private investigator Bernie Thomas, a former member of the APD. His role as a liaison between the professionals and the amateurs is an effective device. The amateurs take some risks, and they use their brains and their ability to gain trust and talk with people, but they don’t do what’s better done by the pros.

Harrie and Ginger, who are studying to become amateur radio operators, are naturally and believably drawn into investigating the apparent broadcast from the missing Alan Whitney. I like a mystery that gives me glimpse into a hobby or occupation I previously knew little about, and this book provides a fascinating exploration of amateur radio without ever losing the pace. Wood slips the exposition into the energetic dialog as part of a page-turning plot.

 Much of the detective works, realistically, takes place through interviews, asking the right people the right questions, and through research and the use of creative intelligence to understand the clues. Most of the violence takes place offstage, though there are suspenseful scenes in which danger threatens characters the reader comes to care about. While this isn’t in the category of a humorous mystery, there is humor in the characters’ banter, and one of the criminals was an incredibly amusing diversion. He’s a bit like someone who walked out of a 1940s black-and-white movie in a way, and yet also wholly original.

 Wood is the master of the chapter-ending hook that makes you want to keep going. Surprises kept coming around the corner right to the very end. If you like to challenge your brain to solve a mystery, Patricia Smith Wood is an author you’ll come back to again and again.

To read more about this author, see my interview with her and my reviews of her first two books, The Easter Egg Murder and Murder on Sagebrush Lane

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe

O'Keeffe cover 3

This is not an interstate kind of a story; it’s a back road drive with a raconteur at the wheel. There’s a wonderful pot in a remote place, and it takes a bit of a hike and some excavation to find it. Brush off another layer, and there it is, an intact marvel of original workmanship. The old pots which the narrator, Hubie Schuze, admires were made by hand, not on a wheel, and their shape shows it. Not perfect—and not meant to be. That’s part of their character. This book is not shaped like a standard mystery novel, either. Don’t expect it to be. Just ride the back road. Hubie knows where he’s going (though you may wonder about that at times).

The prologue takes off like a rocket. Then, during the first few chapters, new readers may go through what I’ll call “orientation to Hubie,” getting used to the flow of his entertaining and often educational ramblings on topics historical, artistic, culinary, and unclassifiable. (Established fans of the series already enjoy this as much as solving the mysteries.) If you’re new to the Pot Thief and decide to start here, don’t worry, keep reading. Once Hubie gets out in the desert to illegally “rescue” an ancient pot, the story, his character, the setting and his deep reverence for the artifacts he finds and sells come together into a lively, colorful tale that’s both a clever mystery caper and a sweet, delightfully off-beat love story. There’s a lot of wordplay, for fans of that type of wit. However, the humor I liked most in this book was that which came authentically from characters and situations, and there’s plenty of it. Hubie’s sincere and awkward attempt to put his girlfriend at ease in a delicate situation is hilarious, all the more so because it comes from his heart. A sudden turn of events near the end is so perfectly timed and phrased for comic effect, I think my neighbors heard me laugh when I read it.

The New Mexico landscape and locations—from Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences to the vast emptiness of the White Sands Missile Range—are portrayed well. Hubie’s idiosyncratic meanderings are part of the New Mexico feel of the book. I can easily see him in the mini-park in the median in Truth or Consequences across from Black Cat Books and Rio Bravo Fine Art. I can’t decide if he would get on my nerves or amuse me if I sat with him—probably both—but he fits perfectly. (There seem to be a lot of smart, eccentric, single, middle-aged men in T or C.) Orenduff has created a unique character in Hubie, and his own style of mystery—intelligent, non-violent, and funny, with the murder aspect secondary to other puzzles. The red herrings are effective, the clues are laid well, the solution is surprising, and the end is satisfying.

If you haven’t yet discovered the earlier books in the series and want to start at the beginning, the titles, in order, are:

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras

The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy

The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier

The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

The Pot Thief Who Studied D.H. Lawrence

The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid

The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe (release date: Jan. 26, 2016)

 Next week I’ll have an interview with the author, J. Michael Orenduff.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder on Sagebrush Lane

Murder on Sagebrush Lane

Patricia Smith Wood’s second book in the Harrie McKinsey series picks up three years after the events in the first, The Easter Egg Murder. During the elapsed time, editor Harrie McKinsey has married an FBI agent, giving her a natural connection with law enforcement. Wood’s blend of detective work by police, FBI, and a believable amateur works well again. I say a believable amateur because while Harrie handles the stress of the situation with courage, she is affected by it in the way one would expect a non-professional to be. Harrie’s intuitive dreams play a smaller role in this book, but remain part of her motivation to ask questions about a murder.

The crimes in this book revolve around an important place that may not immediately come to mind when people think of New Mexico—Sandia National Laboratories. The attempted sale of government secrets from this research facility in the Albuquerque area and the murder of a Sandia Labs employee are the central mysteries. Alongside these runs the question of what will become of the blood-stained toddler who shows up in Harrie’s flowerbed the morning of the murder. The suspense is strong and Harrie is often in danger, but there is little violence onstage. The bloodiest event has already taken place when the story begins.

A reader could start with this book and go back to the first without feeling the sequence was a problem, aside from the minor issue of a lack of physical descriptions of some of the returning characters. The relationships are established clearly without an excess of backstory.

Wood manages a large cast of characters in complex scenes remarkably well—not an easy feat—as well as the interactions of multiple investigative agencies. She delivers a satisfying string of revelation scenes toward the end, none of which is the conventional confrontation-confession. Once I finally found out whodunit, I realized that the clues were there, but that I’d been sidetracked by all the other possibilities. Readers who like to give their brains a workout trying to solve a mystery will enjoy this. It’s tight, precise, and effectively paced, with every chapter turning the plot through yet another unexpected twist.

A new character I found particularly strong and engaging is Sgt. Cabrini Paiz of the Albuquerque Police Department. She deserves her own series, or could share the lead in this one, should the author be so inclined. There are precedents for this sort of shift. When James D. Doss wrote his first book, The Shaman Sings, Granite Creek Colorado police chief Scott Parris was his primary detective. Southern Ute Tribal Investigator Charlie Moon (nephew of the shaman of the title) showed up to assist him, and in that way that characters have, Moon took over. Not the investigation, but the author’s creative mind. The series became the Charlie Moon series, with Parris moved to a major supporting role. I like the books featuring Harrie, but I think Sgt. Paiz has equal potential as the protagonist of a mystery series, and I hope to see more of her.

 

Related posts:

Patricia Smith Wood

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/a-new-mexico-mystery-author-interview-patricia-smith-wood

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/a-new-mexico-mystery-review-the-easter-egg-murder

The convention of the confrontation and confession

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/stop-talking-and-shoot-the-guy

 

 

“Do You Need a Ride?” A Pedestrian Ramble

One of my favorite Edward Abbey rants in Desert Solitaire is about tourists who won’t get out their cars in a national park and who suffer the illusion that they have actually seen the place when they haven’t walked in it.

For me, walking is a way of getting to know a community and its personality. I seldom sit in waiting rooms when I could be out exploring. A place doesn’t have to be scenic to have character; even a kind of dreary character can be interesting to a writer. While waiting for oil changes at the Ford dealership in the town that inspired Cauwetska in The Calling, I explored the neighborhood behind it. Many years later when I wrote the book, I knew which house Mae and her mother would move to in the opening scene and I could see, hear and smell every step of the life-changing walk Mae takes that evening.

In my review of The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras I mentioned the narrator Hubie Schuze’s reflections on the superiority of walking compared driving. The line that stuck with me from this particular scene is I saw a baby gopher—one of the many things one could not experience if driving a car. I’m trying to find the chapter for another quotation but I keep finding all his other walks in Albuquerque instead. Hubie walks in his city quite a lot.

Based on this literary precedent, I believe it can’t be remarkable to be walking in Albuquerque, surely not so odd that a complete stranger should offer me a ride—and yet someone did. I arrived early for a yoga class Tuesday and decided to walk a few not-very-scenic blocks to pass the time rather than sit. A man of about fifty to sixty, driving a nice car, rolled down his window in passing and asked if I needed a ride. New Mexico is a friendly place, where we talk to strangers all the time, but I’ve never been invited into a car. I was so stunned I just said “No,” forgetting add “thank you.” What was this man thinking? I was wearing yoga clothes, flip-flops, and a sensible sun hat, so I don’t think I looked like some middle-age hooker angling for business at five-thirty in the afternoon. I didn’t look feeble, either. When I was walking in T or C a few nights earlier, a woman I’d never met before asked me what I did to stay so fit. She was getting out of her car, and she didn’t offer me a ride. (On that same T or C walk I passed a group of people who’d been rafting on the Rio Grande. They’d just unloaded their gear and I think they’d been imbibing a little on their trip. One woman, still holding a half-empty beer bottle, hugged another, and liquid poured from the bottle to the ground. The recipient of the hug asked, in a most serious tone, “Are you peeing?” You couldn’t get a laugh like that while driving. That was as good as seeing a baby gopher.)

When I went to the corn dance at Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) earlier this week, I chose to park a distance from the plaza and walk. Twice, shuttle bus drivers tried very hard to let me know I could ride. I know they were just being courteous, but I couldn’t bring myself to ride. In my work in progress, this pueblo will be one of the settings, and walking helped me to soak up details.

When I walk in Santa Fe, no one offers me a ride. The city is full of pedestrians, some of them very interesting. While I walked to the Best of Santa Fe Block Party last Saturday, I encountered young women striking dance and yoga poses on the streets. This evening in the Plaza at Bandstand, I saw a tall trim Anglo man with a white tiny goatee wearing a little round flat African hat in pink and green and orange, pink John Lennon sunglasses, an orange-and-green African print shirt and a swath of similar fabric wrapped around his waist over his bright green shorts. All the clothing looked new, clean and crisp, a carefully chosen concoction.

The best-dressed dog at Bandstand belonged to man whose lean, scruffy appearance and worn-out backpack suggested he might be homeless. He had placed a pair of sunglasses with bright orange frames on the nose of his dog, a gentle, friendly mutt. Children broke off dancing wildly to the Santa Fe Chiles Jazz Band to pet the dog, and the man was gracious, careful of the children’s well-being and his dog’s good behavior. The way he steered and guided his dog made me think perhaps the glasses were there to indicate that the dog was blind. I had to wonder about the story behind his apparent good cheer in what looked like tough circumstances. Now, while writing this, I wonder if anyone ever offers him and his dog a ride.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras

Pot thief 1

There is no sub-genre within the mystery genre that could classify this book, and I mean that as a compliment. Pot thief and pottery shop owner Hubie Schuze is so unlike any other protagonist in a mystery series, I can’t compare this to other books and say “it’s like X.” It’s not.

So what is it like? Albuquerque.

I suspect Hubie might cringe at the phrase “Keep Albu quirky,” but it’s not a bad way to introduce him and his way of looking at the world and loving his city. Orenduff has a knack for describing people with a few clear images that pick out their defining peculiarities, positive or just plain odd, and this seems to be integral to Hubie’s point of view. He sees people as they are—and sees himself as he is, too, with humor and humility despite some strong opinions. His delightful digressions are as essential to the flavor of the book as seasonings are to a good meal. One of his rambles is on the benefits and pleasures of walking in the city compared to driving, and it fit with the way I felt while reading. I had such fun being in the moment with Hubie and his friends that I forgot to try to figure out whodunit.

Hubie figures it out, of course, and the end is surprising. I wouldn’t have seen that coming even if I had been trying to solve the crime. Don’t let my drifting with the Tao of Hubie make you think this book is unstructured. It isn’t. Multiple intriguing subplots—adventures that are sometimes humorous and sometimes simply human—are interwoven with the mystery plot.

Hubie’s capacity for friendship and generosity is on equal footing with his inclination to break a few laws. It’s this combination of rogue and good guy that makes him so engaging. The acts of kindness as well as the minor crimes Hubie commits while solving a major one kept me looking at the scenery, walking, appreciating every step of the way.

 ******

 My interview with J. Michael Orenduff will follow my review of the newest book in the series, The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe. I’ve had the pleasure of reading it early, before the ARCs come out. Keep an eye out for that review and interview in the upcoming months. Meanwhile, get into the flow with Hubie with this first Pot Thief book.

 

 

 

 

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Deadly Recall

This is the first of a series of New Mexico Mystery features. In true New Mexico fashion, I don’t have schedule, but will post these at random intervals when I find the right books. (If I find a NM book I don’t like, it won’t be featured here, though I may review it elsewhere.) I’ll be following each review with an author interview a week later. The Land of Enchantment is a diverse place, and I hope to share a wide range of stories that highlight its many faces.

 

Review

 Equal parts mystery and romance, Deadly Recall by Donnell Ann Bell is tightly plotted and suspenseful, and has intriguing three-dimensional characters. With the male lead being a police detective and the female lead a defense attorney, conflict is natural to the plot and situation. (I found this to be a refreshing change after reading a number of romances in which the conflict felt contrived.) Kevin and Eden have a delightful and believable first encounter that sets both the love plot and their interwoven roles in the mystery plot in motion. Their attraction to each other is portrayed with depth, and their relationship in progress is often charming.  Bell has a knack for witty, natural banter between lovers and friends. Eden occasionally makes decisions which made me want to shake her but I could see that was her nature, not a plot contrivance. It made me empathize with Kevin.

The book is set in Albuquerque, showing the city that its residents see. While in some ways the protagonists could be from anywhere, their homes or hobbies have local flair. Eden’s loft near Old Town felt like a real part of the city, and I liked the very Albuquerque detail that Kevin is part-owner of a hot-air balloon. A number of the supporting characters feel like part of the local scene, people who put the quirky in Albuquerque, such as Eden’s client the vegan, tattooed housepainter-and-artist, and her neighbor Mr. Lucero, who thinks his cat is the reincarnation of General MacArthur. The behavior of the chatty, nosy, Chinese food delivery guy struck me as typical of the way people in NM talk to strangers. All of the minor and secondary characters have personalities, even if they are only onstage for a cameo.

The author’s style is sometimes so original and well phrased that I wanted to applaud while reading. Once in a while the wording seems a little hasty or not quite polished, but not often. As a reader who loves the craft of writing, I spent far more time in a state of admiration than I did getting in touch with my inner editor.

The clues and red herrings kept me guessing and thinking in step with the characters as they worked through the layers of mystery. Some romances make it seem as if love is the end of the story. I liked the way this book kept going a little further. Not only the love story and the mystery plot are wrapped up (without a single cliché for wrapping), but also Eden’s inner experience, her rediscovery.

I look forward to reading more of this author’s work. Even if it’s not set in New Mexico.