Art and Murder in 1950s Santa Fe
Rumor has it that a number of the characters in this book are based on real people who were part of the art scene in Santa Fe in the fifties. The author was part of that scene, married to an artist, but she didn’t write the book until 2011 when she was in her late eighties. Her ability to immerse her perspective in a fifties mindset without a single slip or anachronism is impressive. It makes the book fascinating and often startling, as the narrator, feisty young Mary McIntyre—Mac to most people—takes the sexism around her for granted, casually describes a fashion of the time as a “squaw dress” without the slightest sense that the word could be offensive, and tiptoes around the fact that someone is gay with what was no doubt open-mindedness and acceptance for those times. I’m not complaining about these features of the book; it’s realistic and well-done. The time period is neither romanticized nor denigrated, shown as it was in society overall, and in particular in Santa Fe (fictionalized as Villa Real, part of the city’s full name, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis, the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi).
The characters are irresistibly both likeable and flawed, none of them fatally. Except, of course, one—the killer. Mac, who moved to Santa Fe for her health after spending time in a sanitarium (a true-to-life aspect of fifties New Mexico), works for the local art association. Three of its senior members, established artists, have recently died in accidents. During her illness, Mac read a lot of mystery novels to pass the time. For a lark, she and her neighbor, struggling artist Bill Thorpe, start plotting a mystery novel as if the deaths had been murders. Then, the more they think about it, the more they suspect it’s what really happened. Mac’s problem: she knows and likes all the suspects. Including Bill.
As Mac recovers her health and her looks, she basks in male attention, not hesitating to date two men at once, one of them married, taking unabashed pleasure in the situation and at the same time learning more about the murders that the police are sure were accidents.
As I read, I absorbed new information about an artist’s life and work, got a feel for a city I know and love as it was sixty-odd years ago, and enjoyed working out the puzzle in Mac’s engaging company. I suspected who had done it, but not how or why, though all the clues were well laid. So were the red herrings. Bobbs handles what is normally the worst scene in any mystery—the confession scene—with genuine originality, eliminating almost all of the clichés. At the end, Mac’s decision how to handle her knowledge is morally ambiguous, but her reasoning is clear.
A special charm of this book, for those who know Mrs. Bobbs’ contributions to Santa Fe, is that Mac’s hobby is gardening. Mrs. Bobbs’ gardens at La Querencia are legendary, making her a Santa Fe Living Treasure. The gardens, in fact, are her claim to fame, and it’s quite possible there are many people who know of her for this achievement and don’t realize she wrote a mystery.
In lieu of the usual author interview, I’ve linked to a blog post that features pictures of the author’s gardens and to a wonderful article from New Mexico Magazine that is better than anything I could have done. After reading it, I felt as if I’d spent time in Elspeth Grant Bobbs’ delightful presence. Enjoy.
I do have to point out a shortcoming in this book. I wish the copyeditor had done justice to it. Sunstone Press should have someone who is more attentive to detail do it over, fixing simple things like run-on sentences, a few unclear lines of dialog, etc. that the original editor should have corrected before publication. These oversights annoyed me considerably at first, but I became so immersed in the story that although I still noticed the problems, I ceased to be so distracted by them.