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: 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.