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.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Bread of the Dead


bec99b44a2fd5c6e3780eab3ea253edbIn some ways this is the coziest of cozy mysteries, full of food and folk art, but in other ways it’s not typical of the genre. The victim is not only important to the amateur sleuth but to the reader. He’s the most deeply appealing and complex character in the story. In a light sort of mystery, the loss of such a person is unusual. It gives the protagonist a strong reason to do that otherwise unbelievable thing—amateur sleuthing—and it also makes the story function on two levels: solving a puzzle with all the usual elements of a cozy; and contemplating life, death and legacy, good works and grieving. The mood and meaning of the Day of the Dead festival—reconnection with the beloved departed—is central to the story and is set beautifully at the beginning.

Myers has a wonderful way with words and uses culinary imagery with flawless precision, true to her narrator’s point of view. Foodies will love this book. The amateur sleuth, Rita Lafitte, is a cook, and the food theme is woven smoothly throughout. Recipes and their meaning to friends and family form a framework that turns the plot in a way that even a kitchen-impaired reader like myself could enjoy.

The Santa Fe setting is rendered in detail that will satisfy any would-be visitor who hasn’t been there yet and wants to take a fantasy trip, and will spark memories for those who have visited before. At times, I felt as if the author had tried a little too hard to fit as much local color in as possible, but overall the portrait of the City Different and its environs was painted well, from Pueblo speed traps to purple taxis to the famous Plaza—and the food, of course.

A few of the characters and events are entertainingly over-the-top, while others are realistic, another aspect of this book’s dual personality. I found the spiritual materialism of Broomer, the irritable owner of an expensive Zen garden, unfortunately true to some aspects of Santa Fe life. The arts center for teens reflects a fictitious version of a real and vital part of the city.

I can’t say why I suspected the real culprit early on, and I was frequently thrown off the trail by other suspects and plausible motives. The final solution and the revelation still came as a surprise, as the various strands of the story came together in one of the most elegantly crafted discovery scenes I’ve read.

If you’re a cook, you’ll enjoy the final section: recipes for foods related to the story, including the Bread of the Dead.Day_of_the_Dead_Coyoacan_2014_-_136

Next week, look for an interview with Ann Myers.