A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman

Anne Hillerman took her time to get to know retired Navajo Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn before writing a book that spends at least half its pages in his point of view, and her study of the character her father created pays off. The interwoven crime stories—a case Leaphorn works on as a private investigator and one Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee work on for the tribal police—are told with excellent attention to police and PI procedures as well as the personal experiences of the investigators. I appreciate the realism of Bernie’s work days—she’s never just devoted to one case, but is pulled in various directions by minor crimes as well interacting with the FBI on a homicide.

The individual stories of the crime victims and the people around them are as intriguing the process of solving the crime. Hillerman skillfully weaves Bernie’s family and Leaphorn’s life situation into the plot. I grew so involved in his and Louisa’s relationship, it was as if old friends were having these difficulties. And for me, they practically are old friends. Hillerman writes as if readers already know her primary characters—what they look like, how old they are, and their history with each other. This far into a series, I prefer it that way. Little to no backstory.

The final scene with the killer was, as in so many mysteries, more confessional than struck me as likely, but on the plus side, the context was plausible. Overall, the pace and the complexity were excellent. And the threads of history and culture woven throughout are never dumped, but crafted into the scenes.

I’m curious what the next book will bring. No one managed to get through to the overconfident, misogynistic rookie, Wilson Sam. Is he going to get in trouble? And will it be Jim Chee’s turn for a lead role? I love how Anne Hillerman writes his dialogue, especially his humor, but in the latest book she doesn’t get inside his head quite as deeply she does with Bernie and with Leaphorn. But I think she could, and I would love to see such a book.

Digression: A minor thing confused me. The Navajo custom of not naming the dead doesn’t seem to be observed consistently by anyone in this book. In any culture, there are variations from person to person in adherence to traditions. The museum director Mrs. Pinto says outright she doesn’t believe in chindis, so her naming the deceased fits with her beliefs. Later in the narration the author mentions that the particularly sensitive time after a death, the time during which one doesn’t speak of the dead, has passed. But I thought the name still wasn’t spoken for a longer time after those four days, and characters I thought were more traditional, like one victim’s father, do speak her name. I know Hillerman does her research, so I was puzzled why this seemed different from the way the practice is portrayed in other books in the series. Or maybe it really wasn’t, and this is just my perception, my need for one little piece of backstory.

Note: This book, like all of Hillerman’s, is set not exclusively in New Mexico, but on the Navajo Reservation, part of which is in New Mexico.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

The second Sonny Baca novel is not just a sequel, but a continuation of a journey through the four seasons and the four sacred directions that began in book one, Zia Summer. Sonny, the great-grandson of legendary New Mexico lawman Elfego Baca, grows as heir to his bisabuelo’s role and also in his spirituality and capacity for love.

To recover from the soul sickness caused by a murder he dealt with in the first book, Sonny seeks healing from a curandera. The healing is his initiation into the spirit world and shamanic experiences, and it introduces the most compelling aspects of the story.

This private investigator character far from noir. Sonny is colorful, a flawed but basically virtuous young man strongly connected to his family, culture, and community. He’s realistic in many ways and yet also a larger-than-life hero who has mythic-scale adventures in his archetypal battle with Raven, the cult leader and domestic terrorist he pursued in the first book.

Sonny is hired by the Alburquerque International Balloon Fiesta when a balloonist who could have been a witness in a case involving Raven dies. (Get use to that extra r in Albuquerque as you read the series. It’s not a typo. Anaya restored it, though it fell off the city’s name a long time ago.) An intriguing aspect of the crime plot is the time period, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and the arms-and-drugs deals of that era. One of the themes is corruption.

The balloon fiesta itself, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, and the glory of October in New Mexico, are as central to the story as the characters. The author is so passionate about them he gets carried away sometimes, re-describing them more often than necessary. He also restates his themes a bit too often. I guess his editor didn’t dare tell the master cut, but these repetitions slow the pace. A reflection on autumn in the Rio Grande valley isn’t needed when lives are at stake. The book overall is still powerful. I mean this as praise when I say it has an occasional comic book quality—a fight scene with a leap off a balcony, a mad scientist scene, the invocation of special powers—because myths, archetypes, and superheroes are closely related.

The most complex characters aren’t the good ones or the evil ones, but two women who are torn between: Madge, the balloon fiesta director, and Tamara, Raven’s former follower. The Good Women aren’t filled out as well. Though their roles in Sonny’s life differ, his lover, Rita, restaurateur and herbalist, and the curandera, Lorenza, are virtually identical. This may be due to Sonny’s idealization of them—or the author’s.

Lorenza is Sonny’s new spiritual teacher. His neighbor don Eliseo, a traditional elder, was his teacher in the first book and remains one in this. I’ll be interested to see if each book in the series adds another teacher and how these teachers balance his spiritual wholeness by the end. Despite some excess verbiage, I’ll follow the rest of the series. After all, it’s excess verbiage by Anaya.

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey

As always in this series, the opening is brilliant, followed by a colorful and intriguingly circuitous journey. If you’ve not yet discovered the pot thief books, think of them as off-beat cozies with an intellectual bent: nonviolent, humorous, character-centered, with a lot of cooking (some of it very funny—yes, recipes can be funny), and a romantic subplot. Unusual in the cozy mystery genre  are the male protagonist and the illegal nature of some of his activities.

In this book, for once Hubie is not stealing ancient pots (rescuing them, in his opinion) but teaching students how to make copies of them, and he’s doing it at the college that kicked him out of graduate school for digging up pots where he wasn’t supposed to be digging.

The portrayal of students, faculty, and administrators is satirical but rings true. Hubie, long out of touch with academic life, has a lot to learn to get back into it. He’s kind, but he’s also a tad opinionated and not a stickler for rules, so he gets off on the wrong foot with a few people—something Edward Abbey would understand.

The department meeting is hilarious (and made me glad I no longer have to attend them), but the best comic scene is the culmination of one of the romance subplots. A few of the discussions over drinks ramble on a bit, but they’re still entertaining.

Hubie’s reading of Edward Abbey assists his thinking, as the pot thief’s topic of study in each book does. I especially liked how his friend Susannah’s background in art history plays a key role in solving the murder. The mystery plot keeps turning. Each time I thought it had wrapped up, another twist came around.

Although this is basically a humorous book, it has some serious moments, and they’re handled with grace, in both the subplots and the mystery plot. The victim of the crime is given a place of honor in the story.

A new reader of the series could start here and not feel lost, but I recommend beginning with The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras and getting to know Hubie and his friends from the beginning.

*****

Click here for my 2016 interview with the author.

 

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.

Ghosts, Mediums, and Scientists: A Review of Spook by Mary Roach

Reading Spook was one of the most enjoyable pieces of research I’ve done. My fiction often involves ghosts and other forms of contact with the dead, as well as psychic phenomena. I’ve found numerous studies of mind-to-mind communication, remote viewing, precognition, etc., but this is the first time I’ve read about scientific attempts to study the afterlife. I read a couple of books on ghost-hunting and paranormal investigation; however, the author of those books is more a professional skeptic than a solid scientist.

Mary Roach explores current science on reincarnation, soul weighing, out of body experiences, and also the history of mediums and other interactions with the spirits of the dead. She’s one of the funniest writers I’ve come across. She manages to find the strangest items in the historical record—her chapter on ectoplasm, for example. The fact that it was regarded so seriously at the time it was a popular mediumistic trick is as fascinating as the methods used to produce it.

Roach participates in a training for becoming a medium; takes part in a study on creating the perception of a ghost through infrasound; goes along on reincarnation research trips in India; visits a small North Carolina town where a ghost helped a man win a lawsuit; and more. Her inquiries are serious, but she never takes herself seriously. Much of the humor comes from her ability to laugh at herself, and to notice the workings of her own mind.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or life after death, you can enjoy and learn from the author’s journey.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Zia Summer by Rudolfo Anaya

A mystery with many layers, the first of Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels is crime fiction and also literary fiction with mythical depths. At one level, it’s the story of a young private detective’s search for his cousin’s killer; at the other level, it’s the story of his spiritual development and reconnection with his traditional culture and his ancestors. The story also reflects on the ecological and ethical challenges facing New Mexico as some seek to develop it and others to preserve and protect it. The sacredness of earth, sun and water, and their spiritual place in human hearts, is as important as the question of who committed the crime, and even inseparable from it.

Sonny Baca, great grandson of the famous Elefgo Baca, is—like his bisabuelo—a flawed hero. Sonny is still maturing as a man and in his profession, learning from his mistakes, but at the same time he’s smart, perceptive, and courageous, and he thinks a lot about both the world around him and the struggles within him. For a reader used to the pace of most crime fiction, this occasional descent into deep wells of thought may feel digressive, but Sonny’s insights are part of the story. Most of the time, the pace is intense and the story flies along.

One way Anaya sustains the flow is that he never translates or explains the Spanish words and phrases his characters sprinkle throughout their conversation. This not only kept the pace and the authenticity, but taught me. I began to understand them as I read. (If you’re not a Spanish speaker, notice how you figured out bisabuelo already.)

Though they have full personalities, there’s an archetypal quality to the characters. Sonny’s neighbor don Eliseo is the Wise Old Man, human and believable, not idealized. His spirituality is both transcendent and earth-bound. Rita, Sonny’s girlfriend, comes close to seeming too perfect, a strong, loving, nurturing goddess, but she’s written as seen by a man in love with her. The villains of the story are the inversions of these benevolent archetypes, making them some of the most disturbing criminals I’ve come across in a mystery.

The writing is engaging, as one would expect from a literary master like Anaya. The first chapter, however, is the weakest, heavy with backstory. Don’t let the slow start deter you. After that, the story comes alive. While the crime is horrific, the fullness of Sonny’s life and circle of friends balance this element with humor, love, and mystical wisdom.

*****

New Mexico Magazine recently profiled Anaya in a wonderful and thorough article, linked here.

 

Review: Supernormal by Dean Radin

Some people approach the topic of psychic phenomena from a standpoint of immoveable conviction. There are those who believe psi events happen, and no science or statistics would convince them otherwise. On the other side are those who believe such things do not happen, and no evidence from even the best quality research could convince them otherwise. It’s like politics. Minds seldom change. But that doesn’t mean they never do. Science progresses through study and replication and further studies, and the word “proof” is seldom used outside of mathematics. This book should interest readers who would like to assess the evidence with an open mind.

Having said that, I think it may be useful to preface this review with the author’s credentials, taken from http://www.deanradin.com/NewWeb/bio.html:

“Dean Radin, PhD, is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at AT&T Bell Labs, Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, and SRI International. He is author or coauthor of over 250 technical and popular articles, three dozen book chapters, and three books including the award-winning The Conscious Universe (HarperOne, 1997), Entangled Minds (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and the 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award winner, Supernormal (Random House).”

The author works hard to make statistical analysis and research methodology accessible to a reader without a background in those fields. Having spent the last ten years of my academic career helping first-year college students learn to comprehend the language of scholarly journals, I have mixed feelings about this “translation.” Would it have been better to teach his readers the terminology, or was paraphrasing it the right choice? I don’t know. Sometimes he tries too hard to funny, like a professor who attempts to lighten up his lectures with strained jokes, but that’s a minor issue. Overall, I found the book well-structured and thoroughly researched. (384 sources are listed in the back, exceeding the number of pages in the book.)

Supernormal is primarily about how scientists study psychic abilities, not about spectacular events, so anyone wanting to read amazing, colorful anecdotes won’t find them here. It’s not essentially about yoga, either, though it will have more meaning to a reader who has studied yoga philosophy, and Radin has some good quotations on that subject. In yoga, the siddhis are not, as I understand it, as important as simply achieving awareness and quieting the cravings and cluttered noise of the mind. The siddhis can happen, but they are not the purpose or goal of practicing yoga. Nonetheless, in Radin’s research and in studies by other scientists, subjects with a regular meditation practice performed significantly better in experiments testing clairvoyance, precognition, and other psi abilities, so there appears to be a correlation between meditation and being psychic. An impressive number of well-designed studies support this. (My own experience fits the pattern. When I began yoga and meditation at age twelve, I began to have precognitive intuitions and dreams.)

I’d recommend this book to a reader who wants to get “down in the weeds” in the labs where these studies are done and examine the designs, the methods, and the analyses without going to the original scholarly journals. It’s a solid summary of what’s been found so far. The questions raised about the nature of reality and the nature of mind and consciousness are intriguing. How did the future find a crack into my dream and appear in perfect detail? Some of Radin’s studies address the emotional aspect of psychic material. He set up one study using long-term couples with one partner who was ill as subjects, and included the emotional bond and loving intentions as part of the design. Why does this matter? As with any other sense, we may be constantly filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what is salient. It’s only when we dream that a friend is about to die or hear a voice warning us of something dire for a loved one that we let the psi phenomena take central focus. Otherwise, our psychic sense’s input can be ignored as background noise, the way unimportant input from our hearing often is. Perhaps if we learned to tune into this sense and trusted that it was real, we might act with more awareness and wisdom.

Much of what happens in psi is small—a sense that something is about to happen, or that one is being stared at—so we pay no attention. Radin studies all of these phenomena in minute detail, even documenting patterns of brain activity. I could go on, but that would be a spoiler, if there can be such a thing in science.

Radin almost pulls the rug out from under himself when he drifts off into a page or two of speculation on unrelated phenomena such as UFOs and crop circles that the skeptics and debunkers (some who rail against his studies) have actually already done good job explaining. Even though he doesn’t say he believes in these things, and uses them as a take-off point for ruminations about reality, they have no natural connection with psi ability and probably don’t belong in in a book on that subject. (I suspect that editors sometimes don’t tell famous authors—whether they are novelists or established scientists—to “kill your darlings.”) Nonetheless, as a yoga teacher, a long-time consumer of the scholarly literature on psi research, an individual who has occasional psychic experiences, and of course as the author of a mystery series featuring a psychic, I found this to be a worthwhile read.