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.