A Depression-era whodunit by a former senator, another Navajo Reservation knockout from Tony Hillerman, and other creepy tales by Ruth Rendell, Margaret Truman and Bill James.
Dust Bowl Death
If mysteries teach us anything -- figuratively and literally -- it's that you can't judge a book by its cover. Take the case of Coyote Revenge (HarperCollins, $24), a first novel by former Oklahoma senator Fred Harris. With a Southwestern-inflected title like that, Harris's book sounds like a Tony Hillerman knockoff -- an impression that's exacerbated by the book jacket blurb from none other than Hillerman himself. ("This book is a dandy. Fred Harris is a helluva writer.") But, while Hillerman's blurb is fatuous and Harris's title imitative, the story between the covers is original -- rich in historic detail and colorful yet credible characters, stark in tone, as befits a tale set during the Great Depression. Like the bumbling house guest in an Agatha Christie mystery who turns out to be lacing the kippers with arsenic, Coyote Revenge seems, at a cursory glance, like a loser but quickly proves itself to be lethally ingenious.
We know there's a ruthless murderer afoot in the tiny town of Vernon, Okla., because a bloody prologue set in 1935 tells us so. Banker Hoyt Ready and his wife, Inez, had just returned from Sunday services, and Hoyt was settling down to read the paper when -- boom! -- a .22-caliber rifle bullet smashed into his heart. Inez was next, and then the killer doused the pair with coal oil, set the house ablaze and fled. The clumsy official ruling was suicide.
Flash forward to 1937. Ray "Okie" Dunn has just returned to Vernon after being booted out of law school for slapping a professor during a heated argument about Roosevelt. He teams up with his dad, Hudge, a struggling cattle trader, and reunites with an old flame, Juanita, who has "femme fatale" all but emblazoned on her bosom. Juanita and her brother, Dub, the local sheriff, also happen to be the adult children of the deceased Hoyts. So when someone at a local jackrabbit hunt fatally mistakes Dub for a floppy-eared target, Okie accepts the vacant sheriff's job and resolves to get to the bottom of all these strange Hoyt-related deaths.
Oil leases on Indian land, family secrets and misheard messages from the mouth of the dying all play a role in solving the murders. Coyote Revenge isn't one of those clever puzzle-thrillers that bury the killer's identity in layers of red herrings; on the contrary, the answer to the question of whodunit becomes pretty obvious about halfway through this novel. No matter. It's the Depression-era atmosphere that makes Coyote Revenge so memorable.
Harris's novel captures a world long gone -- a world of cakewalks and cards in the window for the iceman and packed Armistice Day parades where people dress in their "best shopping-day clothes." Coyote Revenge isn't overly nostalgic about that world -- after all, there is a killer on the loose -- but it does justice to the everyday courage and resourcefulness of the generation that found itself caught in those tough times.
Tracking Down a Legend
O.K., so maybe Tony Hillerman doesn't excel in writing book jacket blurbs, but when it comes to the quality of his own mystery novels, he continues to dazzle. Hunting Badger (HarperCollins, $26) is Hillerman's 15th mystery and, like most of the others, set on the Navajo Reservation, which sweeps across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. As usual, it features Navajo Tribal detectives ex-lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who just can't seem to settle into the rhythms of retirement, and Sgt. Jim Chee, who's back at his Shiprock desert "precinct" after finally breaking up with his city-slicker girlfriend, Janet Pete. Also, as usual, Hunting Badger somehow defies the mystery-series-burnout odds and manages to be a standout.
The book takes inspiration from true events that Hillerman recounts in his opening author's notes: the 1998 murder of Colorado police officer Dale Claxton, who was shot to death by three men when he stopped the stolen water truck they were driving. One of the suspects killed himself; the other two successfully vanished into the very same high desert canyon country that Hillerman has immortalized in his novels. The ensuing, botched, real-life search, led by the FBI (which often appears in Hillerman's series as the inept-but-irritating nemesis of the Navajo Tribal police force), haunts the memories of Leaphorn and Chee when they're faced with a similar situation.
In the opening pages of Hunting Badger, a trio of thugs has robbed a Ute casino and killed one of the cops on duty there. The gang has escaped into the back of beyond, and Leaphorn and Chee, motivated by separate but compelling personal obligations, soon become involved in the chase that leads them to the eerie truth hidden in an old Ute tribal legend about a "hero figure who could jump from canyon bottoms to mesa rims."
It's almost redundant to mention the spectacular use of setting in a Hillerman novel, but the landscape of Hunting Badger seems especially desolate: It's filled with lonely ranches, crumbling trading posts, the echoing empty restaurant at Window Rock's Navajo Inn and an old abandoned Mormon coal mine whose labyrinthine chambers are as spooky as those of your standard-issue Gothic castle. As an added bonus, romance seems to be in the air in this mystery. Wary widower Leaphorn is growing fonder of his intermittent companion Prof. Louisa Bourebonette, while Chee is wising up and recognizing the honey charms of fellow officer Bernadette Manuelito, as well as his own grudging affection for his old boss, "the Legendary Lieutenant." My money is on Leaphorn and Chee as the couple that endures.
Never Underestimate Reg Wexford
Like Hillerman, Ruth Rendell is another natural wonder of the mystery world; she barely seems to come up for air between churning out her Inspector Wexford mysteries in tandem with her psychological thrillers written under the pen name Barbara Vine. Nevertheless, Rendell's production-line pace never seems to drain her imagination. Harm Done (Crown, $24) is Rendell's 19th Wexford novel, and the plotting is as intricate, the creepiness quotient as high, as ever.
The dirty secrets that families abide is the subterranean theme of Harm Done. Wexford's social-worker daughter, Sylvia, has begun a stint at the Hide, a refuge for battered women and their children -- a job that causes her father to reflect on the violence lurking in the hearts of family men under his command. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, an elderly pedophile named Thomas Orbe, who has just been released from prison, attempts to make a home with his grown daughter; but outraged neighborhood parents threaten violence if he doesn't remove himself. The distasteful job of protecting him lands squarely on Wexford's shoulders, at the same time that he's attempting to solve two old kidnapping incidents. Two young women have disappeared, one after the other, occasioning police hunts and television appeals by the families. Both girls turn up after a few days but are reluctant to disclose where they've been. The pattern turns more ominous when a 3-year-old child vanishes and, shortly after, her father is found stabbed to death.
True to form, Rendell invites readers to experience a real touch of evil in Harm Done -- an evil that lingers long after the criminals have been captured. Her genius for spot-on character description is also wickedly apparent in this novel. Here's Wexford's musings on Rachel Holmes, one of the reappeared girls:
"She was one of those clever girls, brought up to have a high opinion of themselves, who when as young as this show their self-confidence in contempt for others they estimate as lower down the intelligence scale. Police officers would come into that category, he thought with concealed amusement."
As devoted Wexford fans well know, Rachel underestimates the inspector at her peril.
Murder Most Bibliographical
Speaking of prolific mystery writers, surely by now Margaret Truman has just about run out of famous places in Washington in which to commit murder. Murder at the Library of Congress (Random House, $25) is the 16th in her Capital Crimes Series, and soon she'll be reduced to titles like "Murder at the Trash Can on the Street Corner Across From Where the Old Ebbit Grill Used to Be." This latest tale features Annabel Smith, an art gallery owner, and her impossibly dishy older husband, Mackensie, a former top criminal attorney turned law professor who whips up gourmet dinners in the kitchen of their sprawling Watergate apartment. Annabel has been commissioned to write an article for Civilization (the magazine of the Library of Congress) on Bartolome de las Casas, a confidant of Christopher Columbus who may have kept secret diaries about the explorer's discoveries. Annabel's research takes her to the Hispanic section of the Library of Congress where, one night, a particularly odious scholar gets his head bashed flatter than Columbus's detractors imagined the earth to be.
Suspects and secondary characters (many of whom evoke famous Washington personalities) abound. That promise of Washington insider knowledge is, of course, the great attraction of this cozy series, which steadily jogs along at a slow speed -- unlike the headlong dashes into darkness that Rendell and Hillerman unfailingly provide. Murder at the Library of Congress will entertain those readers who like their mysteries lite and their detectives untormented.
The Zany and the Bawdy
Then there are those readers who like their mysteries vulgar, sexually frank and zany -- a peculiar mix that perhaps only Bill James's Harper & Iles books can provide. Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur of the London police is a widower with two randy teenage daughters and a nubile young girlfriend. His sometimes partner and nemesis, Assistant Chief Desmond Iles, has designs on Harper's older daughter and on the chief's job. In Eton Crop (Norton, $22.95) this unholy duo join forces to rescue a female cop who's too obviously infiltrated a London drug ring. That's as much of the plot as I understood. Either the book's London slang was too thick, or I was.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air." She is also associate editor of "Mystery & Suspense Writers," which won a 1999 Edgar award.