By Susan Pagani
Not all mysteries are created equal, and this small sampling of Southwestern nailbiters from the University of New Mexico Press runs the gamut. Set in the demanding geography and shifting populations of that sparsely populated state, a talking cat or a twisty plot can make a so-so mystery a gem, but in this genre there's nothing quite as fun as a novel that's so well drawn in context and character that, for a time, it becomes a thoroughly consuming reality.
Pari Noskin Taichert's first novel, The Clovis Incident, may be a bit messy in parts, but she makes up for it with a hearty dose of humor that keeps the reader laughing all the way through a very quirky plot.
The book opens on Sasha Solomon, the narrator, losing her job in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and hopping in her car to pursue a freelance PR opportunity in Clovis. These first pages feel tacked on and rushed, but we do learn that in times of stress Sasha suffers from visions and the occasional conversation with her cat. En route to Clovis, she stops to appreciate some geese and is accosted by the terrifying apparition of a man floating toward her: Full of holes and oozing, he whispers, "Help me. Please."
Is Sasha hoo-hoo or is she actually in contact with the other side?
Sasha had planned to bunk with her old friend Mae, a dairy farmer, in Clovis. Unfortunately, Mae is in a bit of trouble: There is a man in one of her water troughs - naked, dead, and clutching her nighty. Furthermore, Mae believes she's been abducted by aliens. Shortly after this revelation, Mae is locked away in protective custody by her family, allegedly for cutting herself, which only helps solidify her apparent guilt. That leaves our heroine to find out whodunnit. Discreet sleuthing is nearly impossible in tiny Clovis: Sasha must dodge Mae's overprotective progeny, a crusty brother-in-law, a hunky detective, and a creepy stalker - all while pursuing her raison d'etre in Clovis.
Clovis Chamber of Commerce would like to solve its small town budgetary woes by replacing Roswell as the Alien Capital of the World. Sasha's job is to furnish the communications plan. This hilarious sub-plot leads Sasha down a separate investigative track, turning up alien remains and victims all over the place, including cows covered daily in Vaseline-like ectoplasm.
As PR maven turned detective, Sasha is alternately plucky and clever, and ridiculously naïve - a classic horror-story combo that sometimes threatens our suspension of disbelief. Still, Taichart works the suspense masterfully, and in the end turns out a mystery that is fun and somehow heartfelt, if not exactly a stumper.
In Dead Pawn, Richard E. Peck takes us back to Albuquerque in a Southwest flavored noir complete with dim thugs, a psychopathic crime boss, a double-crossing brunette, and infinite corruption.
Two years ago, Bob Wince was sent to "the joint" on a three-to-five year sentence for a construction fraud he didn't commit. Now he's been released early with no warning. That's disconcerting, but Bob is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. All he wants to do is get his contractor's license back and start over.
If only it were that simple. Back home in Albuquerque, his girl and his Mustang have been stolen by a petty thief, his father's restaurant is nearly bankrupt, and somehow they are all inextricably linked to the cold-blooded local crime leader, Victor Ortega.
But at least he has a job. Rolan Begay and his beautiful sister have hired him to create new display cases and a safe in their shop, Begay's Indian Arts and Crafts, to house an exquisite collection of dead pawn valued at $200,000. Dead pawn is unsigned, pre-1940s turquoise jewelry that was made, in this case, by Diné (Navajo) Indians for personal use, and then abandoned.
In Bob Wince and the Begay siblings, Peck has traded hard-boiled for hard-working and optimistic. Oddly, they are surrounded by classic noir characters. As the updated femme fatale, Bob's reclaimed girlfriend appears to be the perfect foil - tempting, obtainable, and lethal. But she falls just short of the witty one-liners and gritty glamour that makes noir so cool, and in the end comes off as unconvincing and cheesy.
Dead Pawn is clever in an Ocean's Eleven kind of way. It's fairly obvious early on that the pawn is bait, and there's a sense that, even with an intricate plot and stacked odds, the good guys don't have to struggle too hard to win - which ultimately leaves the book feeling a little thin.
While tracking a wolf killer across the fictitious Gila Divide, Will Mann, a ranger for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, finds the body of Millicent Braden, the only child of a local rancher. Only 12 years old, Millicent was called "Wolf Girl" because a love of science prompted her to adopt one of the controversial wolves recently released on BLM land, where cattle have traditionally grazed.
To successfully solve the murder, Mann has to work, diplomatically or not, with the many other agencies enforcing the Heel: land, forest, wildlife, border, customs, and immigration. In doing so, the ranger suddenly finds himself smack in the middle of the ranchers' infinitely complicated environmental politics, and the vicious drug wars raging on both sides of the border. It is fascinating to watch the opposing forces in these conflicts - many of whom are Mann's friends, neighbors, and colleagues - polarize and then coalesce as Mann solves the crime.
This is Benke's first novel. He's a journalist, and it shows in his ability to clearly draw out the complexity of this geographical area while balancing complicated issues: On the one hand, there are environmentalists who are flatly against grazing of public land; on the other are cattle ranchers; and somewhere in between are the folks that want to move toward sustainable grazing. Benke's brilliance is that he does so without becoming divisive, by allowing the humanity of his characters to get to the heart of the matter. And it works because his characters work.
Benke's only fault might be that he is a little overzealous in populating his novel to show all sides in an even light. Between the agents, ranchers, biologists, eco-terrorists, environmentalists, drug lords, and wolves, it is sometimes hard to tell who's on first. Overall, however, the novel is so well researched and precisely written that it dignifies the disclaimer at the beginning of the book: It may not be true crime, but it sure reads like it. •
By Susan Pagani