Whodunit: Tribal divisions turn deadly
When a high-end BMW is blown up in a rural Arizona school parking lot, the preliminary investigation suggests eco-terrorism, since the car owner is a well-known mediator in matters concerning a controversial multimillion-dollar resort planned on Navajo lands in the Grand Canyon. Navajo tribal cop Bernadette Manuelito is at the scene moments after the explosion, quickly stepping in to secure the area and prevent further carnage, unaware that it will plunge her into one of the most intriguing and potentially deadly mysteries ever to come her way. Song of the Lion is the latest in Anne Hillerman’s series featuring characters created by her late father, the legendary Tony Hillerman. Although she echoes her father’s voice perfectly, Hillerman brings a totally new sensibility to the series, elevating the female contingent without neglecting the contributions of series stalwarts Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. There is no shortage of Navajo culture and mythology woven into the narrative, as well as a very modern Old West tale of jealousy, envy and revenge.
They call him “The Composer.” It seems an innocuous enough moniker, until you learn that the nickname is derived from the rolling credits at the end of homemade videos of slow murder. He abducts people, seemingly at random, leaving only a calling card as a clue: a small hangman’s noose at the scene of the abduction. The Burial Hour, the 13th in Jeffery Deaver’s series featuring wheelchair-bound investigator Lincoln Rhyme and his able-bodied compatriot/lover Amelia Sachs, begins with the pair racing against time to save the Composer’s current video victim, a businessman with a noose around his neck, balanced none-too-steadily atop a precariously placed box. One wrong move, and the rope will snap the victim’s neck like a saltine cracker. With Rhyme and Sachs hot on the Composer’s trail, the arch-criminal makes good his escape, but soon his macabre handiwork turns up on a dusty back road in southern Italy. And Rhyme, who can be coaxed out of his apartment even less often than porcine detective Nero Wolfe, will at last leave not only his apartment but even the continent to bring his latest nemesis to justice.
I started reading C.J. Box with his first novel, Open Season, in the summer of 2001. Now, 16 years and 16 Joe Pickett novels later, I am still reading, watching Pickett’s career as a game warden in Wyoming triumph and suffer. Box’s latest, the aptly titled Vicious Circle, finds Pickett once again up against disgraced rodeo star Dallas Cates, with whom Pickett has some unpleasant personal history (his daughter ran off for a time with Cates, learning the hard way what a callous individual he is). This time, there is ample evidence that Cates was complicit in the killing of a ne’er-do-well character who haunted the periphery of Pickett’s life: Dave Farkus. Moreover, Pickett is pretty sure he witnessed the murder, albeit via heat-sensing night scope. But as strong as the evidence may be, Cates has a trick or two up his sleeve, including a canny defense lawyer who leaves Cates free to continue his seeming life’s work of bedeviling clan Pickett. Vicious Circle is perhaps the most intricately plotted installment in the series since its inception; Box never falls into the series trap of caricaturing his protagonist or making him seem larger than life. Pickett remains a good guy fighting the good fight, quietly and for all the right reasons.
TOP PICK IN MYSTERY
Let me go on record as saying that this is one of the most difficult reviews I have ever had to write, for a myriad of reasons. First off, Greg Iles’ latest novel, Mississippi Blood, is roughly twice the length of your average mystery novel. And it’s the third book of a trilogy, which adds another 1,600-plus pages. I can give you but a brief synopsis, something along the lines of the three blind men touching an elephant and each thinking the animal looks completely different. And so it is with Mississippi Blood. Detective novel? Yep. Police procedural? Yep, that, too. Courtroom drama? Affirmative, Your Honor. Romantic interest, post-Jim Crow racism (The Double Eagles, a fictional KKK splinter group, are particularly chilling), Southern culture clash, decades-old secrets enshrouded in Spanish moss? Oh, yeah, all of that and more. There are overtones of Mockingbird-era Harper Lee in here, and storytelling skills that rival those of the late, great John D. MacDonald. As all books do, Mississippi Blood draws to a conclusion, and therein lies the hardest part of this review: Because as long as this book is, and as long as the entire trilogy is, I simply didn’t want it to end. I found myself oddly wanting to move to Natchez, Mississippi, and see how the rest of these people’s lives played out.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.