A New Mexico Mystery Review: Cave of Bones by Anne Hillerman

I mean this as praise when I say this book reads more like a slice of life than a standard mystery novel. Anne Hillerman sustains suspense while avoiding the familiar ruts of the genre. I liked the fact that there was no “dead body by chapter three,” one of the conventions of mysteries. And since the book doesn’t start with a murder or the discovery of a dead body, the mystery gets its impetus from figuring out what happened and why. Not from figuring out who killed someone. Navajo police offer Bernie Manuelito shows courage and persistence as she becomes involved in several related problems: the puzzling disappearance of a man who worked for a program helping youth through wilderness experiences, a tribal council member’s demands that the program’s accounts be investigated, and the possible looting of ancient grave sites. Bernie’s husband, Jim Chee, is also looking into the fate of a missing man.

I was every bit as compelled to keep turning the pages as I would have been in a more conventional mystery, maybe more so, because I couldn’t guess where the story was going. I was curious about many people’s motives and deeply concerned about whether or not the missing men would be found. I wanted to know why they vanished and what might have become of them. Both of them became real and likeable while entirely offstage, as shown through the eyes of those who knew them—including one’s cranky mother-in-law and another’s disgruntled, critical coworker as well as those who loved them.

As always, I enjoyed the fullness of the story, the family life, and the friendships that make Bernie a whole person. The settings, from the Malpais lava lands  to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, are vivid. The land itself is a powerful part of the story.

There’s no closing cliché, for which I am grateful. I hope it isn’t a spoiler to congratulate Hillerman on not having her protagonist held at gunpoint by a killer as a way of wrapping up the final questions. Instead, she provides a more original drama that triggers the key revelations, and also more a realistic conclusion.

I thought I caught a timeline glitch relating to some seeds in a drawer, but I might have been reading too fast and missed something. Otherwise, polished and intriguing.

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Shrines

peacock-feather In Martyn V. Halm’s one-of-a-kind suspense novel, In Pocket, the narrator Wolfgang, a pickpocket, begins to doubts the motives of a young woman who befriends him because her shrines don’t seem authentic. He says that in his observations of women’s homes, they make shrines. He doesn’t mean religious ones but highly personal arrangements of objects that honor special aspects of each woman’s life.  When I think of friends’ houses and apartments, the most common shrine is the family pictures shrine, but I’ve seen idiosyncratic ones. I recall a friend who had peacock feathers and other objects arranged around a mirrored dressing stand on the hall landing, her shrine to I know not what, but it had a kind of art deco bordello feeling to it.

Some people’s kitchens are shrines, arranged to honor the gods of nourishment and conviviality. My academic colleagues’ offices are shrines to scholarship, with diplomas and books and journals—but also softened with mini-shrines to family. In my books, I’ve used this kind of imagery—Charlie’s door and office in The Calling are the most vivid example—as a way of revealing character and also implying a mystery. Why do people  build the shrines they do?

I have so much meaningful art around me that my whole home is a shrine. And then I look at the clutter, the heap of writing reference books, the heap of journals on alternative medicine, the stack of books and magazines I’m reading, the notes on my work in progress spread on the left side of my desk, and I think—that’s not clutter, those are shrines. Shrines to reading and writing.

When I move to a smaller space, I’ll be parting with slice-of-life shrines, eccentric random gifts with stories behind them. A Roswell NM alien-face paper fan a friend gave me at the Mescalero ceremonies many years ago. A Gumby one of my yoga students gave me. A stuffed toy tree frog. I’ll trust my heart to store the people and memories I echo back to myself with things like these little green creatures. Sooner or later, we all part with everything we own. Practicing non-attachment seems abstract at times, but not when I am taking down my shrines.gumbyleaning2

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Done From Life by Elspeth Grant Bobbs

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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.

 

Walking into a Story in Santa Fe

Inside an old bowling alley in Santa Fe lives a multi-dimensional work of art. The House of Eternal Return blends written word, video, sculpture, paintings, textiles, and architectural space to immerse visitors in a mysterious story. When you go through the doors of a Victorian house built inside the former bowling alley, you find evidence of a family’s seemingly ordinary life, but as you explore you find that something strange has happened to the people, and to nature of time and space and reality. The characters and their story have to be discovered through the artifacts in the house, ranging from photographs to drawings to journals. For example, if you open the pages of a diary in a child’s room, you learn more about the mystery. If you don’t, you find clues elsewhere.

Behind the refrigerator is another world. If you open the fridge, you leave ordinary reality. Or you might exit another way. The upstairs goes in and out of altered worlds. Some are serene, some adventurous, some disturbing though not terrifying, just intensely strange. The psychedelic nature of this art installation is hard to describe. There’s so much to explore, so many aspects to the story—moving, transcendent, bizarre—that I can see why people buy a year’s pass. One visit isn’t enough for a full discovery. I crawled through a hole in a closet to find a piano under a glass ceiling like a starry sky. I clambered down a winding narrow staircase to a mystical cave full of music and crystal-like forms. Much of the art is interactive. You can play pianos and unique percussion instruments built into the sculptural walls; you can turn pages and decide if you’ll leave that journal open or closed; and you can press buttons to get sound and light effects. There are hidden nooks with video screens showing episodes of the residents’ past. Some videos only start if you choose to sit in the chair in front of them, and they seem to react when you get up to leave.

I recommend this art space to anyone who loves to play with reality, and who will not be overwhelmed by occasional flashing lights, moments of chaotic sound, tight narrow spaces, spiral staircases, and a general sense of being unmoored, floating in a sea of dreams. After spending a few hours in it, I found that meditation after my yoga practice was deep and blissfully silent. The chains of thought-to-thought busyness had been broken and my inner space was open wide.

Later, when my left brain came back online, I reflected on the story-telling genius of The House of Eternal Return. The objects in the normal-time-and-space rooms hint at the inner life of the characters and at the events that happened to them, and visitors end up collaborating at uncovering clues. One person notices a document and reads it. Another discovers a crawl space. Another emerges from an unexpected place—like the refrigerator. It’s like sharing a 3-D novel—part science fiction, part mystery—with other readers.

When I write a book, I can improvise the plot as I go. More often, I know where it ends and then try out different routes to get there. Free-flowing as the initial process is, however, the end product is a linear narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The story in The House of Eternal Return is told in a nonlinear way, with multiple options for how visitors experience it, but the process of creating this vast, multi-chambered work of art had to be as precise as the design of an aircraft. If you’re a story-teller, this aspect of it may intrigue you as much as the interactive masterpiece itself.

Interview with M.L. Eaton: The Mysterious Marsh

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In my post a few weeks ago on the conventions in mystery, I mentioned a fascinating book that breaks many of them, When the Clocks Stopped by M.L. Eaton. This mystical mystery takes place in the village of Rype-on Marsh in the south of England. Lawyer Hazel Dawkins is anticipating some peaceful time off before the birth of her first child. When she agrees to a little part-time work, she finds herself drawn into troubling events in the lives of her clients—and in the past. The distant past. Mysteriously, she encounters Annie, a woman who lived more than two centuries ago when Rype-on Marsh was a violent place, dominated by gangs of smugglers. With multiple layers of both time and crime, it’s an amazing and original tale. I’m happy to have Marion Eaton as my guest today. In late April we’ll be doing a ten-day sale and a three-book give-away together with a third mystical mystery author, the innovative Australian writer Virginia King. We’ve enjoyed each other’s work and are excited to introduce our readers to books we think they’ll also enjoy.

Retired from legal practice and semi-retired from holistic therapy—although she still teaches Reiki and other workshops—Marion lives close to the sea in the beautiful East Sussex countryside with a long-suffering husband, a lazy saluki and an urge to write into the small hours.

MLE: Thanks so much for your interest in my book and particularly for thinking up all these wonderful questions. I‘m really looking forward to answering them, so I’m going to dive straight in ….

AF: Your book is historical at two levels, being set in 1976 and slipping in time to 1747. To what extent is it based on real historical events?

MLE: I had to smile when I read this … because I remember many events of 1976 perfectly and it doesn’t seem like a historical period. But, of course it is!

I think perhaps it is best for me to come clean from the start. The book was originally going to be a memoir of the first year when I set up in practice on my own account as a country solicitor (attorney). I’m sure you can guess the date? 1976. I had written a few chapters— very badly and in very stilted language, because after all, I was a lawyer— when I suddenly found myself writing something far more exciting and definitely inaccurate. Not a memoir at all. I stopped and thought about it for a minute or two and then decided that I might as well enjoy myself. Who would be interested in the memoir of a country solicitor, anyway? But hidden away in my memory were a lot of interesting stories that I had encountered around that time. It seemed second nature to stitch them into the story. So the short answer is yes, the story is based on real historical events of 1976. Later, when Annie came into the story, she arrived complete with her own personality and history. It was then that I had to do considerable research to check that the background and events surrounding her in 1747 were as accurate as possible.

AF: I like the fact that the mysterious phenomena in your book happen to people who have no expectation of them, no belief that such things are possible or that time is anything but a linear march. Have you ever had even a hint of this kind of mystical experience? If not, what’s the origin of this aspect of the story?

MLE: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me stories of when she was a little girl. Many of them had to do with her experience of ghosts and other psychic phenomena. I always longed to have similar experiences but I was a sensible, pragmatic child and despite all my efforts nothing similar ever seemed to happen to me. Until, one day I was looking over a house … and the rest is in the story!

AF: Did you set out to write a murder-less mystery? There’s crime and deception in your book, but this isn’t the standard whodunit. How conscious were you of breaking some of the conventions of the mystery genre, while keeping others?

MLE: To be honest, I didn’t actually give much thought to genre when I was writing the book. As I’ve mentioned, I was writing for the sheer joy of writing and the mystery evolved naturally. I suppose that as a lawyer it was my bread-and-butter work to solve problems and difficulties so that was a good starting point. The book had to be interesting for me, as well as for my readers. But in the end I had little choice: my characters fleshed themselves out and made their own decisions about the story!

AF: Tell me about your research concerning the eighteenth century smugglers. Did you do it in the Romney Marsh area? How did you go about reconstructing the speech of the time and place? Is Annie’s role in the Owlers unusual?

MLE: I still live near Romney Marsh. This part of Britain (Kent and East Sussex) is wreathed in history and we are fortunate in having great local museums and local history societies, all of which were very helpful both in giving information and pointing me in the direction of contemporary accounts and records of smugglers.

I have always been fascinated by local and family history and my forebears have lived in this part of the world for generations, so I was brought up on tales from the past. Being close to the continent of Europe, for hundreds of years smuggling was a way of life for many people in this area. (Indeed, only yesterday, there was an item on the news about the foiling of a smuggling gang at Dover, very close to the Marsh).

I have no doubt that, then as now, it was a raw and violent occupation and there were many criminal gangs involved, but over the centuries it has become as romanticized as Robin Hood. Smugglers called themselves ‘Gentlemen Free Traders’ and at one time in the eighteenth century practically the whole local community was involved one way or the other. It was the ‘Preventatives’—Government enforcement officers—who were seen as ‘the baddies’.

It was Annie herself who spoke to me of her role in the Owlers, but from the accounts and tales of the rival gangs of smugglers it is clear that women were often involved. Although most acted as signalers, lookouts and scouts, there were others who worked alongside their men in landing smuggled goods from the boats.

On a personal note, I remember my own grandfather telling me how his father would sometimes warn him that he might hear unusual sounds in the night and if he did, to stay in his bed and put his head under the pillow. And always, the next morning there would be strange horses in the stable in place of their own horses. But beneath a stack of hay would be found a small barrel of brandy or a bolt of silk cloth. The horses would be returned a day or two later, when the other horses would also be returned to their owners.

I was lucky to have contemporary records to help me with reconstructing the speech of the time, and also to recall the local Kentish accent that surrounded me in my childhood. It’s rather sad that such accents are now fast disappearing from common use, but some of the older people in the area still speak in the same way.

AF: The village life and scenery is beautifully portrayed, with vivid details of the buildings and gardens. I’ve never been to a small English village but your book made me feels as if I had. The architecture in Rype-on-Marsh is integral to the plot. How did you work this in? I’m curious to know if there are places that served as models, or this was a blend of reality and invention.

MLE: I’m thrilled that you were able to identify with the area and town in When the Clocks Stopped. To me, as to many others who live there, Romney Marsh has its own very distinct identity—almost its own character—and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that the town on which I based Rype-in-the-Marsh also has its own personality. Both the Marsh and the town feel to me to be a huge part of the story, as well as the history that surrounds them. I did embroider details onto the fabric of the town, the most significant being the King’s Ditch, but most of the description of the town and its building and streets are accurate enough to be recognizable to local people. There really are dikes crisscrossing the Marsh as well as secret passages centering on the church.

AF: You had a lot of choices in how you could have told this story. It could have been third person, past tense all the way, in both time periods. You could have told the story in 1976 entirely as a simple crime mystery without the time slips, and there still would have been a good plot. How did you go about making all these choices, using the various voices and points of view? Why present tense for the glimpses of the past?

MLE: I didn’t seem to have a choice while I was writing. It seemed important to write in the first person, partly for immediacy and partly because of the limitations of doing so which meant that my protagonist, Hazel, was often baffled by what was going on. I felt her confusion added to the mystery.

Then, gradually, the layers of the past rose up like a miasma from the earth and I realized that there was another interweaving story begging to be told. Annie spoke to me in poetic language, closely linked as she is to Nature and the Earth. I felt I needed some way of emphasizing the differences and similarities between my two women protagonists, but wasn’t quite sure how this could be done. In the end, I simply listened to Annie’s voice—and the present tense flowed from my pen, mostly because the past seemed co-existent with the present. To me, it was as though the dramatic events of the past had stamped themselves on the fabric of time, eternally interwoven with the current time, ever present, ever available to those who listen. I hope the use of the present tense helps to convey a little of this feeling to my readers.

AF: The legal detail was intriguing. I enjoyed learning about special Will paper and the origin of the term “red tape” as well as seeing how Hazel’s work as a solicitor brings her so naturally into the center of the mystery. What’s your background in law? Is this the type of work you did? What’s the most colorful story that you can share from your legal work?

MLE: I’m glad you found the legal detail intriguing. I hoped it would be interesting and entertaining as well as helping to convey the way that Hazel has been taught to think and act.

I qualified as a solicitor in 1973 and, as I have mentioned already, set up my own practice on Romney Marsh in 1976. Law and legal practice in England and Wales have changed so much with the coming of computers and the internet that I wanted to preserve a little of its uniqueness for future generations. I also wanted to correct the current myth about lawyers generally: that they are all in it for money. I know many solicitors for whom the most important consideration is their clients’ welfare.

All I can say is that most of the incidents in the book are based on true stories.

AF: I’m pretty sure this is the only book I’ve ever read in which the protagonist is very, very pregnant. Her condition affected everything, and yet didn’t stop her from anything. This is another writing choice I’d like to know more about.

MLE: I was very pregnant when I set up my first practice—the circumstances of which were very similar to those surrounding Hazel, and so it was a ready-made opening to the story, explaining why Hazel became involved with all the events that took place around her.

As the book evolved, I thought about changing this, but by then I had found out how much the pregnancy helped in underlining the difference of my main protagonist from all the usual heroes and heroines in other legal thrillers. I wanted a character who was obviously different, very much a woman in a man’s world, who managed to solve a crime by non-contentious means. Basically she would be an ordinary person in an ordinary town to whom completely unexpected things happen. I feel the pregnancy makes her vulnerable but also gives her an edge. She is determined but protective. She has a reason to be emotional and weak sometimes. There is the frisson of double jeopardy. Above all it makes her ultra-feminine.

AF: Hazel’s dog Poppadum is an important character. Is she based on a real dog that you know? (Your bio says you live with a lazy Saluki, and Poppadum is far from lazy.)

MLE: Poppadum was the very first dog who was truly mine, an unforgettable, wonderful, unique character. She just had to be in the story and I had to use her real name. As you’ve guessed, she was a treasured member of our family. My elder daughter even learned to stand by using Poppadum’s fur to pull herself upright, and then to walk by hanging onto the dog’s tail. Poppadum and she adored each other.

AF: If one were to go to Romney Marsh as a tourist, what would you suggest they see and do?

MLE: Oh there is so much! From Roman Castles to deserted churches sitting alone in the middle of fields; from beautiful wild beaches to the cobbled streets of the ancient Cinqueport towns of Hythe, New Romney, and Rye; from small towns and villages with country pubs where you can eat before a roaring open fire in the winter, or sit surrounded by flowers in a summer garden, to long hikes with gorgeous views along the cliffs of the Saxon Shore; from the strange neighbours of a bird sanctuary, lighthouse and nuclear power station at Greatstone, to soft sandy beaches with drifts of wildflowers, to the huge amazing Victorian follies built at Littlestone; from a miniature public railway to small fishing boats drawn up on the beach and shacks offering fresh fish for sale. There are fields of flowering bulbs in spring, an airport, museums of country life, thick squat Martello towers and boats for hire on the Military Canal, built as a defence against a possible invasion by Napoleon. Ice cream and fish and chips are available everywhere to enjoy in a bracing sea breeze or in the warmth of the summer sun. But for the perfect experience there is nothing better than a full English tea served at Deblyn’s Tea Room on New Romney High Street. Real leaf tea in a teapot or freshly ground coffee, home-made scones, jam and cream, tiny savoury sandwiches, and huge slices of delicious home-made cakes, all served on bone china. Enjoy it in the bower of flowers they call a garden or the cosy beamed front room of the old house that fronts the High Street. Bliss!

AF: What’s your next project?

MLE: My next project is the third in the Mysterious Marsh Series. Its working title is ‘When the Earth Cracked’. I recently discovered a Roman Altar hidden away in the tower of a church on the edge of Romney Marsh so I am going to have to work that into a book sometime. It might be this one, but it might not …

I’ve also been writing a semi-autobiographical series of novellas (The Faraway Lands Series) requested by my daughters about my childhood travels in the 1950s—which are truly historical now. I’m pleased that the first two in the series have been popular, although they’re very different from my Mysterious Marsh Series.

And also on my to-do list:

  • A 1930s Love Story
  • A WWII adventure story
  • A Book of Angel Meditations

AF: Thank you so much for taking time for all these questions.

MLE: No, it is I who should thank you, Amber. It’s been lovely to talk to you and very kind of you to give time and space to this interview. I particularly appreciate it because I love your books and can’t wait to finish the Mae Martin series. On the other hand, I don’t want to as I’ve become very fond of her! You’ll just have to keep writing …

AF: I will. You won’t run out of my books. And from the length of your to-do list, I can happily predict I won’t run out of your books either.

M.L. Eaton’s web site: http://www.marioneaton.com

Her books are available in e-book and paperback:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00DTV52PK

My post on conventions in mystery:

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

 

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Spider Woman’s Daughter

While continuing the characters and settings from Tony Hillerman’s books, Anne Hillerman has her own style and voice as a writer. I didn’t feel as if I was reading one of her father’s books, but I felt fully at home with her mastery of the series. She has the understanding of Navajo culture that’s central to the stories, and she knows the characters well. Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn and Bernie Manuelito are familiar and fully developed, with touches ranging from Chee’s off-beat humor to Joe Leaphorn’s meticulously detailed little notebook to Chee and Bernie’s deep spirituality. Even the secondary characters like Captain Largo are immediately recognizable as the same people from the earlier part of the series.

The setting is portrayed vividly— the land, the cities, the small towns, and the people. Accurate details and human touches make the places come alive. The bone-jarring washboard roads going to Chaco Canyon have livestock wandering them. A local can’t give directions for driving in downtown Santa Fe. The groundskeeper Mark Yazzie, a minor character, stood out as delightfully real and original. The tenacious and amusingly ferocious Gloria Benally is another unforgettable supporting character. Even if I weren’t a New Mexican, I think Hillerman’s writing would make me hear the voices, feel the air, and see and smell the place, from the plants in Santa Fe gardens to the hot wind in June before the rains come.

This book kept me awake at night reading it, and I found myself thinking about it between times, wondering what would happen next. The suspense is effectively structured, but it’s depth of the relationships that make the story powerful.  Bernie’s dedication isn’t just to her job, but to people, and that dedication drives the story.

It was intriguing to see characters from Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time come back. I hadn’t read it for a long time, and think it would have been fun to re-read it before entering this story. I’m going to rediscover it after instead.

*****

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I follow a review with an author interview. My interview with Anne Hillerman will come later, paired with a review of her next book, Rock with Wings.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Dead Man’s Rules

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This is a true genre blend, as much romance as it is mystery. The multiple layers of the plot—ghost story, new love, old loves, a new murder, and a cold case—are woven into a web that keeps tugging on the reader’s curiosity.

I found the primary setting in the small town of Rio Rojo in northern New Mexico authentic, with its mix of Anglo and Hispanic residents and its close village life that is touched but not changed by nearby Taos. In this town with few newcomers and many generations of history, everyone has some kind of connection and many know fragments of each other’s secrets.

Los Angeles-based television reporter Cere Medina and Rafe Tafoya, the sheriff who is her mother’s neighbor in Rio Rojo, come into conflict over her investigation of a cold case on his turf—conflict complicated by attraction. These are people who challenge as well as charm each other. Their exploration of the case integrates all the threads of the story and forces both Rafe and Cere to reexamine some of their choices.

Both the major and minor characters have good reasons to care about the mysteries—those keeping the secrets and those trying to uncover them. The large cast of secondary characters is handled well, giving the town its personality and giving meaning to the friendships and family ties that affect the murder plots. Both the murder victims are complex people who remain fascinating long after death. Even the businesses in Rio Rojo have personalities, especially the Matador, the casual, home-style restaurant where locals hang out. I could see it, hear it, and smell it.

A nice New Mexico touch is the way Cere’s connection with the ghost of Marco Gonzales is handled. A few people are skeptical, and others accept it readily. Her experience is subtle as well as powerful, not overblown. It’s treated fittingly for the Land of Enchantment. Spirits happen.

Dead Man’s Rules is part one of a three-part story. Author Rebecca Grace handled closure on part one well. The major plot lines all get wrapped up. Subplots revolving around some intriguing secondary characters are left open. These are strong and interesting enough to make the sequel appealing, but not central enough to leave gaping holes to frustrate the reader at the end of part one. I understand that Grace teaches some writing skills classes. The way she finessed this difficult balancing act inclines me think she’d be a good teacher.