Friday, February 28, 2020

Jim Chee Hunts for Missing Diamonds in This Novel from Tony Hillerman

In 1956, two airliners crashed over the Grand Canyon, killing 172 people and leaving their remains scattered along the Canyon. In Skeleton Man, Tony Hillerman has created a novel based off the event and set nearly fifty years later. This is the seventeenth novel in the series, featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police force. By this time, Leaphorn has retired, but pops in occasionally to assist Chee in his investigations, and in this book, he basically plays a small cameo role.

These novels are set on the borderlands between New Mexico and Arizona, and this one takes place mostly in the area around the Grand Canyon. It opens when a young Indian man named Billy Tuve attempts to pawn a diamond that’s worth $20,000 for $20.00. As a young boy, Billy suffered a head injury in a rodeo accident that left him somewhat mentally challenged, and he’s arrested and charged with stealing the diamond from a trading post.

Billy claims that the diamond was given to him by a mysterious old man at the bottom of the
Grand Canyon in trade for a shovel. He also says that the old man had many other diamonds just like it.

Enter a woman named Joanna Craig. Craig’s father, a diamond courier, was on one of the planes that crashed into the canyon in 1956. Handcuffed to his wrist was a briefcase containing a fortune in valuable diamonds. Many years later, someone floating down the river reported seeing an arm sticking out of the water with a handcuff attached to it. But before they could retrieve it, it was swept away by the water and never found.

Joanna’s father was also flying home with a special diamond to give her mother who was then pregnant with Joanna. The two were not yet married and the diamond was to be her mother’s wedding gift. Joanna’s mother had letters from her father documenting the relationship, rejoicing in the pregnancy, and confirming the marriage plans. But the father’s very wealthy family refused to accept this evidence and refused to acknowledge either Joanna or her mother and the two were left to fend for themselves.

Joanna has always borne a grievance for the way her mother was treated and wants the link to her father confirmed. When news of the diamond surfaces, she races to Arizona in the slim hope that the diamonds might lead her to what’s left of her father’s arm. DNA tests on the arm could prove paternity.

Jim Chee steps into the case in an effort to protect Billy Tuve and to determine how he actually came into possession of the diamond, especially after someone else tells a similar story. Could there really be an old man passing our diamonds at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?

Unfortunately, of course, the news of the discovery will also attract some unsavory characters who hope to find the diamonds and otherwise profit themselves, and all of this will come to a stunning climax at the bottom of the canyon in the middle of a tremendous monsoon rain storm.

The attraction of these books lies in large part in the settings, which Hillerman so vividly creates and in the Navajo and Hopi customs and beliefs which are integral to the stories. This is not the strongest book in the series; personally, I prefer the earlier books where Leaphorn was the central character, but it’s still a good one and should not be missed by fans of the series.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

DOUBLE WIDE Is an Amusing and Entertaining Debut Novel from Leo W. Banks

Prospero "Whip" Stark was once an up-and-coming phenom, pitching in the major leagues. But then he blew out his shoulder and, following surgery, his career never recovered. From there it was all downhill until he found himself in a Mexican jail doing time on drug charges. Now free and back home in the U.S., he's settled into an aging Airstream trailer, living the simple life in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona.

A handful of other misfits have joined him in the tiny community known as Double Wide, and Stark is the unofficial mayor of the settlement, watching over his charges. Life is more or less copacetic in Double Wide until one afternoon Stark comes home to find that someone has left a box on his porch. In the box is a severed human hand, and from the tattoo on the back of the hand, Stark recognizes it as a hand that was once attached to the arm of his former catcher, Rolando Molina.

The last Stark saw of Molina, the man had developed a serious cocaine addiction and was entering treatment. Stark is determined to discover what might have happened to his friend, and he suspects that Molina's death is connected to a cartel that's running drugs through an old mining camp on nearby Paradise Mountain. In the course of his investigation, Stark will become entangled with vicious and dangerous drug runners, money launderers, baseball players, aspiring sports agents, and a sexy stripper-turned-television news reporter named Roxanne Santa Cruz. And by the time it's over, only the strong, wily and smart will survive to see the end of the tale.

This is a very entertaining debut novel with a cast of offbeat characters and a great lead protagonist in Whip Stark. It's by turns scary and funny; the dialogue is great, and the story moves along at just the right pace. A veteran Arizona journalist, Banks knows the territory well, and the setting is vividly described. You can feel the desert heat burning into your skin and the monsoon rains pelting down so hard that a person can't see three feet ahead into the night. The story's various threads all come together in a great climax, and this is a book that should appeal to a broad audience.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

THE KILLER IS DYING Is a Great Novel from James Sallis

This is by no means a traditional crime novel, although there is a criminal--a contract killer named Christian--at the heart of the book. The killer is dying and he has taken one last assignment. His target is an unassuming man who works in the office of an insurance company in Phoenix. Christian scouts the man, learning his patterns, and then, just as he is about to strike, someone else shoots the man. Totally confused, Christian watches as the ambulance screams away, taking the victim to the hospital.

Christian is amazed by the coincidence that someone else would shoot the target just as Christian was closing in on him. But how could this possibly be a coincidence, and what could be going on here? Christian feels a professional obligation to complete the assignment and now must figure out how to get at the target who is hospitalized in an ICU. Meanwhile, as a man who has always lived a solitary life, he must deal alone with his own illness and confront his inevitable mortality.

At the same time, a detective named Sayles is investigating the shooting and tracking Christian. As he does, Sayles is confronting his own existential dilemma. His wife, Josie, is deathly ill and with no warning has left him to die in a hospice, without even saying goodbye. When he left for work in the morning, she was there; when he returns from work, she is gone.

Josie leaves a note specifically asking Sayles not to try to find her but to let her die in peace. he is gutted by the experience and must now try to figure out how to confront the new realities of his life. His partner, a detective named Graves, will try to give him the support and the space to work through this crisis, but for the first time in his life, Sayles is in many ways completely alone.

The final character in the story is a young boy named Jimmie whose parents, first his mother and then his father, have abandoned him. He is still living in the house that they shared, paying the bills by buying and selling things online, trying to prevent the authorities or anyone else from discovering that he is living alone, and attempting to come to grips with his circumstances. And, in addition to all of his other problems, he seems somehow to be having the killer's--Christian's--dreams.

The stories are interwoven, moving from one of the three characters to another sometimes from one paragraph to the next. This can be a bit confusing until you get into the rhythm of the book, which then becomes totally captivating and impossible to put down. This is a beautifully written novel about three men of varying ages adjusting to the solitude and changing circumstances of their lives, and it's one that I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.