UPDATES at the end.
Disclosure: I discovered this paperback copy on the "free reading" book exchange shelf at a local coffee shop some months ago. I helped myself to it. More later.
Though Desert Shadows is apparently listed as a "cozy" mystery by Goodreads and Amazon, I personally wouldn't classify it as such. There's significant violence in it, though not a lot of on-stage sex. And there's no humor. Given the 2006/2017 publication dates, it's certainly not classic noir, but the characterization and atmosphere are much darker than a cute story with little old ladies, knitting, and cats. There's child abuse and animal abuse, so take those as trigger warnings.
Private Investigator Lena Jones is a bitter, angry, tormented ex-cop in her early 30s. She has more baggage than a socialite in first class on the Titanic. She's asked to investigate the murder of independent publisher Gloriana Alden-Taylor, who was poisoned at a Scottsdale, Arizona, resort in the middle of a publishing association's conference banquet. The primary suspect, Owen Sisiwan, is cousin to Lena's partner, Jimmy Sisiwan. The method of poisoning was the ingestion of a toxic plant that had been added to Gloriana's banquet salad.
Within a dozen pages, I knew I didn't like Lena. And I'm sure she wouldn't give a damn if I told her so. She hated everything and everyone. She hated the development in Arizona that had destroyed the desert, but she also hated the barrenness of the desert. Her anger issues are so severe that she's been ordered into anger management treatment because she beat up a woman who was abusing a child. The book is told in first person POV, so there's not much disguising Lena's bitterness.
It's somewhat justified. At the age of four, she was shot in the head, apparently by her mother, and left by the side of the road. Rescued by an undocumented Hispanic woman, she was taken to a hospital, then after she recovered from her injuries, she was put into the foster care system. Her anger and other disciplinary issues -- fighting, stealing, and other things a whole lot worse -- kept her from ever being adopted out of the system, yet she somehow managed to get into Arizona State University. I didn't really catch whether she graduated or not, but eventually she landed a spot with the Scottsdale Police Department. She stayed there until she was shot in the hip, at which point she decided to go into the PI business.
Her issues are so enormous that I just couldn't make myself believe that she would have survived police training and even the slightest kind of psych evaluations to get on the force. Yes, I know there are people who are good at faking it, but . . . I just didn't get it with Lena.
And maybe that's why I just didn't get the resolution, either.(show spoiler)
Maybe that, too, is a characteristic of noir mysteries. I like mysteries, but no matter what I did, I couldn't like this book.
Now the rest of the disclosure.
I met author Betty Webb in 1985 or very early 1986, when I joined a Phoenix-based organization called The Writer's Refinery. We later became members of a critique group that met every other week and that stayed together for several years. When I sold my second historical romance, Firefly, the group hosted a little party for me. Betty baked the cake.
After our critique group disbanded around 1989, I became more active in the Romance Writers of America chapters in the Phoenix area and less active in the Writer's Refinery, but I still kept some contact with Betty. And when she went to work for the Scottsdale Tribune newspaper, she kept in touch with the RWA members, too.
Betty called a bunch of us together in 1994 for a group interview and photo, published on 14 February for Valentine's Day. At that time, she was no longer interested in writing novels and was enjoying her work with the newspaper.
The last contact I had with her was a few years after that, when I had gone back to school at ASU, probably around 1998 or 1999. I'm not even sure what we talked about. And I haven't talked to her since.
Finding her book at the coffee shop was a surprise, to say the least. And because it happened just as I was ramping up my own resuscitated writing career, I took it as another of those "not really an omen" coincidences. More like, you know, encouragement.
But I didn't have time then to read her book. Halloween Bingo has been a great motivator for a lot of things I haven't had -- or found -- time for.
Within the first few pages, I knew all of this story, or at least this character. was very familiar. I immediately suspected there is a great deal of Betty Webb in Lena Jones, though I'm not going to guess just how much. But I recognized that Lena Jones had her beginnings long before the first of her stories -- Desert Noir -- was originally published 2000/2001.
Our critique group broke up suddenly -- I remember exactly how and why, but it's not worth going into right now -- and left each of us with the last set of manuscript chapters that had been handed out. Passages in Desert Shadows rang so familiar that I spent half an hour early this morning digging through the archives to find the folder with those almost 30 year old remnants of a bunch of old writing endeavors.
It was kind of creepy to read about a character named Elena whose background and experiences foreshadowed Lena Jones, right down to therapy sessions and half-forgotten memories. It was even more creepy to read my own comments on the manuscript, comments that Betty Webb never saw, and realized how relevant those comments were to the character's metamorphosis into Lena.
There were details in Desert Shadows that jumped out at me that might not have made a difference to a reader not familiar with Arizona. The story is set in March, when some of the wildflowers in the desert are in bloom, but not necessarily -- because it depends on how much rain falls during the winter. And March is still late winter in Oak Creek, not spring, where the toxic plant was gathered. (And why did Gloriana send everyone up there in the middle of the conference? I never understood that part either.) Locusts don't hop in the grass in March; they're a late summer or early fall bug. Cops do still cover each other's butts, and the issue isn't of distinguishing Sikhs from Arabs, but Sikhs from Muslims.
And of course, the Scarlet(sic) O'Hara bit. Betty's older than I am; she should know better.
Was the book well written? I guess so. Once again, there were so many unlikable characters that I had to force myself to keep reading. I just plain didn't care about any of them. The victim was one of them, but even she wasn't the worst. And if the writing style was appropriate for the hard-boiled PI subgenre, I wouldn't have any way of knowing. Even Nick and Nora Charles weren't that . . . gritty. Or nasty. Or unlikable.
Lena Jones as a "wounded" or "flawed" or "damaged" character was just too over the top for me. I couldn't imagine her functioning as a cop or as a PI with all that baggage. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I could imagine her functioning as a human being.
I wanted to like it. I wanted to see that 1980s Elena character developed into something positive. For me, it didn't happen.
I'm sorry, Betty.
UPDATE, because I wanted to keep this all together rather than spread out.
What follows may be both spoiler and trigger, so be warned.
The more I thought about Lena Jones last night and this morning, the more disturbed I became about her. I wanted to find a way to reconcile her personality and all its emotional baggage with her character and occupation. Bottom line was that I should have just let it go and gone on to another book. But . . .
Lena was horribly abused in the foster care system, as it (supposedly) existed in Arizona in the 1970s and 1980s. Her treatment was so horrendous that by the age of nine, she committed some very serious crimes. The violent nature of these crimes would have caught the attention of even a very lax juvenile justice system. While a juvenile crime record might be sealed once she reached age 18, I couldn't make myself believe that she would never resort to that kind of violence again.
And in fact, she did. That's why she had the court order to get anger management counseling. Her outburst had been triggered by an instance of child abuse -- and I couldn't believe that it was the first such instance she had witnessed since age nine. Could I, as a reader, have been led to believe that Lena buried her rage for 20 years? That in all those years, through nine more years in the foster system, through college and through eight years on the Scottsdale police force, she had never once been triggered to violence? Yes, I could have been. But I wasn't. That's the author's job, and she didn't succeed, at least not with this reader.
That was my major stumbling block with this book. Not only did I not particularly like Lena, but I didn't accept her as a viable character, in the sense that "she doesn't know she's only a character in a book." She didn't seem real.
I tried to set that aside, at least for the moment while I looked closer at some other elements of the book. I've already listed a few details that kind of bumped me out of the story, like the weather for the March setting and so on. And I have to qualify the following observations by stating that I don't read police procedural mysteries, so I'm not particularly familiar with . . . police procedures. However. . .
The victim, Gloriana Alden-Taylor, owned a small publishing company that was reportedly making money hand over fist because of the popularity of the type of books and other materials they were publishing. Yet the company's office was small and under-staffed, the equipment didn't work, the employees were underpaid and abused. Supposedly Gloriana was sinking all her money into restoration of a family home, but the home was still in wretchedly dilapidated condition, with few if any repairs evident. There was also sufficient cash somewhere that her will gave one of her heirs enough income not only to buy a home but to quit working at least for a while. Why hadn't Gloriana put that cash into the repairs on the home?
The murderer had sufficient and believable motive. The murderer also had means, though that was a little less believable -- obtaining the poisonous plant under rather extraordinary conditions and time constraints. But the issue of opportunity didn't make sense. Although yes, people see what they expect to see and don't see what they don't expect to see, the idea of this particular person just waltzing into the banquet room and sprinkling some poisonous plant into the victim's salad, then waltzing out of the banquet room unnoticed by anyone seemed far-fetched. After all, the entire staff would have been questioned by the police -- wouldn't they? -- and what are the chances that no one saw anyone unfamiliar, especially someone as noticeable as the killer, hanging around the dining room? Would the killer have been able to blend in by wearing staff uniform? If not, wouldn't their street clothes have been noticeable?
Murder, even with the motive, didn't seem like a route the killer would have taken to achieve the desired result. It wasn't in keeping with that character's personality. As a reader, I wanted to be able to sit back and say, "Yes, I can see how that person could have committed the crime." I wasn't able to do that with this killer. The motive wasn't sufficient to push that individual to the point of murder, the means were iffy, and the opportunity issue was kind of eye-rolling.
There was another issue, though, that exacerbated all of the above. The killer commits another crime, after the murder. Motive? Yes, more or less there was a motive, though I still didn't quite buy it. Means? Well, that gets into the iffy category again.
Opportunity? Well, that moved into eye-rolling territory again.
Maybe I missed things that another reader would see, things that would make all of these issues make sense and the problems disappear. I did go back and look for some details, but nothing jumped out at me to clarify these issues. It's also possible that I just don't understand the genre well enough, and I'm putting the book up against standards it was never intended to be measured by.
I don't know. All I know is that I really tried to make it make sense, and I just couldn't.