A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder on Frequency by Patricia Smith Wood

murder-on-frequency

A New Mexico man long missing and presumed dead seems to have come back to broadcast on ham radio, only to fade out as if something terrible has happened to him.

Patricia Smith Wood has crafted another tight puzzle of a mystery in this third in the Harrie McKinsey series, once again blending multiple mystery genres—a touch of cozy, a touch of police procedural, and now a touch of the PI story as well. Amateur sleuths Harrie and Ginger, the Albuquerque police department, and the FBI come together on a complex case with help from a new character, private investigator Bernie Thomas, a former member of the APD. His role as a liaison between the professionals and the amateurs is an effective device. The amateurs take some risks, and they use their brains and their ability to gain trust and talk with people, but they don’t do what’s better done by the pros.

Harrie and Ginger, who are studying to become amateur radio operators, are naturally and believably drawn into investigating the apparent broadcast from the missing Alan Whitney. I like a mystery that gives me glimpse into a hobby or occupation I previously knew little about, and this book provides a fascinating exploration of amateur radio without ever losing the pace. Wood slips the exposition into the energetic dialog as part of a page-turning plot.

 Much of the detective works, realistically, takes place through interviews, asking the right people the right questions, and through research and the use of creative intelligence to understand the clues. Most of the violence takes place offstage, though there are suspenseful scenes in which danger threatens characters the reader comes to care about. While this isn’t in the category of a humorous mystery, there is humor in the characters’ banter, and one of the criminals was an incredibly amusing diversion. He’s a bit like someone who walked out of a 1940s black-and-white movie in a way, and yet also wholly original.

 Wood is the master of the chapter-ending hook that makes you want to keep going. Surprises kept coming around the corner right to the very end. If you like to challenge your brain to solve a mystery, Patricia Smith Wood is an author you’ll come back to again and again.

To read more about this author, see my interview with her and my reviews of her first two books, The Easter Egg Murder and Murder on Sagebrush Lane

 

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A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder on Sagebrush Lane

Murder on Sagebrush Lane

Patricia Smith Wood’s second book in the Harrie McKinsey series picks up three years after the events in the first, The Easter Egg Murder. During the elapsed time, editor Harrie McKinsey has married an FBI agent, giving her a natural connection with law enforcement. Wood’s blend of detective work by police, FBI, and a believable amateur works well again. I say a believable amateur because while Harrie handles the stress of the situation with courage, she is affected by it in the way one would expect a non-professional to be. Harrie’s intuitive dreams play a smaller role in this book, but remain part of her motivation to ask questions about a murder.

The crimes in this book revolve around an important place that may not immediately come to mind when people think of New Mexico—Sandia National Laboratories. The attempted sale of government secrets from this research facility in the Albuquerque area and the murder of a Sandia Labs employee are the central mysteries. Alongside these runs the question of what will become of the blood-stained toddler who shows up in Harrie’s flowerbed the morning of the murder. The suspense is strong and Harrie is often in danger, but there is little violence onstage. The bloodiest event has already taken place when the story begins.

A reader could start with this book and go back to the first without feeling the sequence was a problem, aside from the minor issue of a lack of physical descriptions of some of the returning characters. The relationships are established clearly without an excess of backstory.

Wood manages a large cast of characters in complex scenes remarkably well—not an easy feat—as well as the interactions of multiple investigative agencies. She delivers a satisfying string of revelation scenes toward the end, none of which is the conventional confrontation-confession. Once I finally found out whodunit, I realized that the clues were there, but that I’d been sidetracked by all the other possibilities. Readers who like to give their brains a workout trying to solve a mystery will enjoy this. It’s tight, precise, and effectively paced, with every chapter turning the plot through yet another unexpected twist.

A new character I found particularly strong and engaging is Sgt. Cabrini Paiz of the Albuquerque Police Department. She deserves her own series, or could share the lead in this one, should the author be so inclined. There are precedents for this sort of shift. When James D. Doss wrote his first book, The Shaman Sings, Granite Creek Colorado police chief Scott Parris was his primary detective. Southern Ute Tribal Investigator Charlie Moon (nephew of the shaman of the title) showed up to assist him, and in that way that characters have, Moon took over. Not the investigation, but the author’s creative mind. The series became the Charlie Moon series, with Parris moved to a major supporting role. I like the books featuring Harrie, but I think Sgt. Paiz has equal potential as the protagonist of a mystery series, and I hope to see more of her.

 

Related posts:

Patricia Smith Wood

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/a-new-mexico-mystery-author-interview-patricia-smith-wood

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/a-new-mexico-mystery-review-the-easter-egg-murder

The convention of the confrontation and confession

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

 

 

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Patricia Smith Wood

high1952front cover Easter Egg

 

Patricia Smith Wood’s father, first as a police officer, and later as a career FBI agent, sparked her own interest in law, solving crime, and mystery. After retiring from a varied and successful business career (including eighteen months working at the FBI, being a security officer at a savings & loan, and owning her own computer business) she attended writing seminars, conferences, and in 2009 graduated from the FBI Citizens’ Academy. Aakenbaaken & Kent published her first mystery, The Easter Egg Murder, on February 14, 2013. Murder on Sagebrush Lane, the second in the series, is finished and awaiting publication.

Last week I reviewed her book and this week she’s here to talk with me about it.

AF: The Easter Egg Murder has one of the most complicated plots I’ve ever read. How did you keep track of it as you wrote? (I picture you with a wall-sized chart covered with color-coded diagrams, or moving some sort of double-layered chess-board of characters around.)

PSW: It really wasn’t a problem for me. I’m a “pantster” and I didn’t map it out. The story simply developed as I wrote. Sometimes I’d start a chapter with a vague idea of it going one way, but it ended up completely different. I would finish and think, “Well, now what?” Then the next idea would just be there, and I’d go with it. I routinely found myself surprised at the twists that came out.

AF: Was there a historical event similar to the murder of Chipper Finn that inspired this book? Are any of the characters from that 1950 part of the plot based, even loosely, on actual people in New Mexico history?

PSW: Definitely! The actual murder of Cricket Coogler happened in Las Cruces, NM in 1949. But her body wasn’t discovered in the desert until sixteen days after she disappeared. Four young men (17-18) found her partially buried body in the desert on the Saturday before Easter when they went rabbit hunting. I used the basics, but changed the details to suit my version. Many of the actual people make an appearance (usually in disguise) in my version. And of course, Cricket’s murder was never solved.

AF: 21st century Albuquerque is the main setting in your book, and easily recognizable. Tell me about Los Huevos. I looked it up and found a rock-climbing site of some apparent difficulty, but no town. Is it based on a real place? Do you have any connection with a little town like that?

PSW: Los Huevos is a completely made up town, located conveniently at the foot of Los Huevos Peak (also fictional). Since the body in my story is discovered on Easter Sunday morning at the foot of Los Huevos Peak, that would be a natural reason to call it The Easter Egg Murder. I had been told I should have a title that stood out, and that seemed to me to fit the bill. I have no connection with such a town, but I suppose the small town of Los Lunas (which is actually southwest of Albuquerque about 20 miles) might have given me the idea.

AF: The story of the murder in 1950 and all the events around it, all the characters involved, could have been a book by itself. Did you ever consider writing it that way? How did you decide to make it a story within the story?

PSW: The story of the actual murder (in 1949) has already been written. In fact, I read everything I could get my hands on about Cricket Coogler’s murder. An excellent book by Paula Moore, titled Cricket in The Web, came out in 2008, right about the time I finished my first draft. I wanted to use some actual things, but ended up fictionalizing most of it. No one in New Mexico who knows about this murder wants to say, on the record, who they think was responsible. It was much more fun (and safer) to make it up.

AF: Harrie has precognitive dreams which add a sense of foreboding to the early part of the story. Was there any additional reason behind your decision to integrate this into the plot? I have this kind of dream myself so I liked that you treat it as only a little unusual. Also, it seemed true to “the woo” of New Mexico to have it in there but not make big deal of it.

PSW: I know several people who have some form of precognition, or “knowing”, about events. It’s always fascinated me and seemed like an interesting story-telling tool to use in fiction. I hoped to convey the mystical atmosphere that weaves it way through New Mexico’s history and culture, from the Anasazi and Chaco Canyon ruins to present day native practices.

AF: Tell me about your research. The illegal gambling and the political corruption in New Mexico back in the fifties were things I really hadn’t heard that much about, and I found them fascinating.

PSW: My father was an FBI agent who was transferred to the Albuquerque Office in 1951, two years after the murder. Events were still transpiring when he arrived here, and he later told me what he knew about the case. I also interviewed many people who lived through that era in New Mexico politics during the period 1949-1950. That included former FBI agents, former residents of Las Cruces, a couple of newspaper men who were around at the time, and even the former governor of New Mexico, who was elected mostly because of the Cricket Coogler murder. I also read books, and watched a film made on the subject: The Silence of Cricket Coogler. The book Cricket in The Web goes into the gambling issue in great detail, but I had also heard a lot about that from the people I interviewed.

AF: I know you have a good background in law enforcement, but you chose to give major roles in solving the mysteries to the two amateur sleuths, though you do include police and FBI. I’d love to know how you made that choice, and how you came around to casting two editors in the role of sleuths.

PSW: I have been a fan of the “cozy” mystery genre since I was a teenager. The cozy requires the sleuth (or sleuths) to be amateur, so it was always my intention to follow that basic rule. My favorite series at that age was the Judy Bolton mystery series by Margaret Sutton. In the early books, she was a teenager like me, and her boyfriend, Peter, helped her solve the mysteries. When they grew up, Peter became an FBI agent. Since my dad was an FBI agent, I thought that was a cool thing to do. Toward the end of the series, Judy and Peter eventually married, and she still managed to help him solve crimes.

As for making my sleuths editors, it seemed the best way to get them involved in a half-century old murder. By editing Senator Lawrence’s book about the murder, it gave them an excuse to become embroiled in digging out the answers. I didn’t stop to think how that might play out over a series, but in the beginning, I didn’t know it would be a series!

AF: Just for fun, I have to include this “outtake.” I made the mistake of asking Pat a question about some other books, and here’s the answer.

PSW: If you “Googled” my name, you might have run across a different Patricia Wood (which is why I insert my maiden name into the mix: Patricia Smith Wood) who has written at least one book (The Lottery) and perhaps more by now. She lives on a boat in Hawaii (which I obviously don’t). But that didn’t stop a local magazine from running a small piece about The Easter Egg Murder in which they stated that the author, Patricia Wood, lives on a boat in Hawaii!

It turns out Patricia Wood is a pretty common name. One day in 2012 I received a phone call from a local television station asking if I was Patricia Wood. I agreed that was me, and they then asked if I was the Patricia Wood who had stolen jewels from luggage at American Airlines and was I headed for federal prison in two weeks. Once I recovered my senses I assured them I was not that particular Patricia Wood, they thanked me and hung up.

AF: Tell me about your newest project.

PSW: My newly finished second book in the series is Murder on Sagebrush Lane. In the first chapter, Harrie McKinsey goes out to retrieve her newspaper at 5 a.m. on a summer morning and finds a small girl playing in her flower beds. She notices a dark stain on the child’s pajamas and teddy bear, and when she realizes it’s blood, her journey to find the child’s parents gets her involved in another murder. Of course, Harrie’s life is never that simple, and before it’s over there’s another murder, a race to uncover a plot to steal top secret data, an attempted kidnapping, and a desperate killer who intends to make Harrie his final victim.

AF: It sounds exciting. I’m glad to know there will be more of Harrie in the future. Let me know when the book comes out. Thanks so much for being my guest.

Pat’s web site:

http://www.patriciasmithwood.com

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Easter Egg Murder

front cover Easter Egg

The best analogy I can think of for this book is a Rubik’s Cube. As I read it, I knew all the pieces of the puzzle could fit together, but I never did figure out how until the end. It’s the kind of mystery that engages the mind, with intricately constructed interlocking pieces and multiple layers of relationships, motives and history. It has a whodunit within a whodunit, as the team of amateur sleuths, police and FBI in 2000 work out who is behind the unsolved “Easter Egg murder” from 1950, as well as a murder and an attempted murder in their own time. In spite of this complexity there are no loose ends, no holes, and even its surprise ending is set up so the closure comes from the prior events, not out of the blue.

The cascade of events in this story is triggered when Senator Philip Lawrence starts writing two books—his memoir of his life in politics, and a book about a fifty-year-old murder that took place in the small New Mexico town of Los Huevos on Easter Sunday. The second book becomes more important to him than the first, and when word gets out that he’s working on it, the project stirs up some serious trouble. The retired senator’s editors find themselves in the middle of that trouble. I liked the way the two editors’ involvement in solving a mystery was handled. The amateurs don’t outsmart the professionals, but cooperate and communicate with them in a realistic way, as well as occasionally striking out on their own.

The characters are deft sketches, the pace brisk. The pieces of the puzzle keep moving. For those who like their books spare and fast, this will fit the bill. The tension is seldom at a life-threatening level, but it builds steadily to that point. There isn’t a dull moment or a single extra word that could have been cut.

I actually would have liked a few more words. The historical part of the mystery was so interesting I wanted to explore that time and place in more depth. I had a good sense of Harrie—one of the editors who is the primary point of view character—as a whole person, but I didn’t get to know the other major players as well as I would have liked. Almost like a radio play, a good portion of the story is told in dialog. I’m never in a hurry to have a good book end and I wouldn’t have minded if this slender 212 page novel had a little more meat on its bones.

*****

Next week I’ll have an interview with the author, in which she shares some fascinating background on this book.