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 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 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.

 

 

New Mexico Mystery Review: Shaman Winter by Rudolfo Anaya

This third book in Anaya’s Sonny Baca series is the most mystical, filled with visions and shamanic dream journeys. Sonny’s detective work takes place in both the ordinary realm and the spirit realm, as he travels through layers of time and identities to confront his ongoing antagonist, the sorcerer Raven.

Raven, in this story, has allied with a white supremacist militia, a plot element that’s surprisingly current, though the book is old enough that doing detective work on the internet was new when it was first published.

The action at all levels is intense, once the story gets moving. The journeys into New Mexico history are exciting, integrating the past with the present. Sonny matures. He has always idealized his fiancée, Rita. In this book, he finally seems to understand her whole, vulnerable humanity as they endure a shared crisis. The curandera Lorenza, however, is still on the pedestal where Sonny tends to put women. He appreciates her, yet I never felt he perceived her entire self. Sonny’s neighbor, friend, and shamanic teacher  Don Eliseo plays a profound role. The end of the book is extraordinary in both the writing and the main character’s spiritual development, as well as the humility with which Sonny concludes this particular case.

This is a book only Anaya could have written. The beginning has some slow spots, so slow I might have stopped reading if I didn’t know the author’s work well enough to keep going, trusting he would reward me. I was right. It well worth reading the beginning to reach the finale.

Book Review: Bless Me, Ultima by RudolfoAnaya

The narrator, Antonio, is an intelligent, spiritually-inclined boy, the youngest of a large family in rural New Mexico. The villages and the land around them are drawn with depth and beauty. That’s the strongest aspect of this book: the spirit of the place. Trees, river, lake, sky, and soil are alive.

The tensions between farming and the restless life, between Christianity and earth-based spirituality, between compassion and cruelty, dark magic and healing magic, make up the drama of the book. Though the protagonist is a child, this is in no way a children’s book. Tony witnesses adults at their violent worst several times, as well as at their courageous best. The scenes of healing and of curses are extraordinary. Anaya’s portrait of the culture he grew up in is masterful.

Tony’s spiritual maturation is true to the ways of childhood, as he searches for answers to questions about the nature of God, of justice, and of mysterious things. The friendships of childhood, and the cruelties and sheer awfulness of some children, are real and vivid. A number of the characters are one-dimensional—Tony’s mother, his sisters, and most of the girls at school—but this is how they’re seen through the eyes of a young boy. Ultima, the curandera, is idealized, the essence of her kind of spirituality, and the tavern-owner Tenorio is the opposite, the dark force. In between is Tony’s friend Cico, who introduces him to a mystical divinity in nature. Cico is just another boy, but he’s one who knows a sacred secret.

The dream sequences are long though beautifully written. The children’s Christmas play runs on a bit, too, with no real contribution to the story—I think the author must have found it funnier than I did. All in all, though, the story is intense and compelling except for those sections, and made me feel even more deeply connected with this place I live, this place I love, New Mexico.

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.