Poisoned Pen Press, Hardcover and Paperback, 2012
E-books, Kindle and Nook, 2012
Blackstone Audio, Audible Audio and MP3CD 2012
Book #7 in Lena Jones Series
Fasten your seat belt. DESERT WIND gets off to a leisurely start, with some back story, some scene setting and character introduction. When it finally kicks in, you may feel a jolt.
This is a Lena Jones series mystery but the story really belongs to a cowboy named Gabe. He’s a young Korean vet when we meet him in Chapter One. The year is 1954; the place is Snow Canyon, Utah. Gabe is a wrangler on the movie set where his hero, John Wayne, is filming “The Conqueror.”
Snow Canyon is 90 miles downwind from an earlier nuclear test site in Nevada and the red dust blowing in a hot wind gets to everyone. People are beginning to cough. Twenty-five years will pass before we catch up again with Gabe, leading to a chapter that moves me to tears. Gabe’s story is the heart of this book.
In the present day, PI Lena Jones and her partner Jimmy get involved in a murder in Walapai Flats. Their business, Desert Investigations, is in Old Town Scottsdale, at the edge of Arizona’s Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Reservation. Walapai Flats is a complicated six-hour drive from Scottsdale, but Jimmy’s adoptive brother, Ted, is being held as a material witness in a murder investigation. Lena follows Jimmy to the touristy little town a few miles from the Grand Canyon.
The murdered man was a PR flack for the Black Basin Uranium Mine. The opening has been delayed thanks to a vocal opposition group, but the promise of jobs means others are willing to ignore earlier devastation wrought by a uranium mine on Navajo lands. To help prove Ted’s innocence Lena questions everyone who might shed light on an alleged argument that led to the murder. She runs into a conspiracy of silence in a town where everyone knows everyone else and many are related. Her persistence makes her a target.
There’s almost too much going on in this book. In nightmares Lena relives her childhood rape and other brutalities, and I found those episodes distracting. For me, the story is about responsibility for wholesale death caused by nuclear testing and unsafe mining practices. In the case of mining, the villains are motivated solely by greed.
The desert setting is described beautifully, and the book is full of memorable secondary characters. One of my favorites is Monty, a no-nonsense farrier. Lena’s assessment of Monty: “Angels don’t always wear wings; sometimes they wear leather aprons.” Another favorite is Olivia, an investigative reporter from New York, who puts Lena in the right place at the right time. For a grace note, there’s the ghost of John Wayne, the Duke himself, back in the saddle where he belongs.