I am not much of a reader of the mystery novel. My stack of books grows with histories, biographies, philosophy and theology books, when I am not reading travel planning books, or music, archeology, and farming magazines. When I heard that my cousin, Susan Vasquez, was working on a book, I expressed enthusiasm for more of her writing style. A mystery novel was not what I expected. However, I had recently read two of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, set in the Navaho Nation culture, so a mystery set in El Paso-Juarez region fit in the mood.
What I enjoy about Vasquez’s (I will try to sound objective here) writing style is her ability to acutely observe and describe people, places, and events, while drawing in larger observations beyond the narrative. The phrase, “If the boots fit” could range from a cliche to a slur to a reference to several characters and events in this book. The main character, Grace Callado, is a former El Paso police investigator transitioning to a role in a private investigation firm. Nice symbol for her “first” adventure. Part of her new role is learning that, in contrast to police investigation to solve a crime, private investigation is to find the information that your client wants. Grace goes back and forth between her experience as a criminal investigator and working for undisclosed clients as often as she crosses the boarder between El Paso and Juarez. I shall leave the rest of the plot for you to read.
Vasquez has excelled in her ability to relate full persons entangled the their conflicting motivations, which drive the events of the mystery. She draws well upon the structural conventions of mystery novels: quirky characters, not-quite-a-romance, clues slipped in without us noticing until she decides that we should become aware of them, cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, and pulling together seemingly unrelated events at the end of the story. What I enjoyed the most was her ability to draw me into the scene with carefully constructed descriptions of settings and interactions of the characters. For instance, early in the novel, Grace tracks a man whom she had met in a Juarez nightclub the weekend before. She suspects that he is having lunch with business associates:
I searched in the soft light for a view of him. A jeweled watch drew my attention five tables down diagonally. He faced away from me, but I recognized his hand as it drew a hat from sagebrush hair. Firm suede with a feather dream-catcher around the band. Not my favorite style, but Carlos could wear anything and look just fine.
“This one’s about right”, I said to the hostess, slipping into the seat before she could lead me elsewhere.
A beer sweated beside the fingers that tapped a Latin beat. “Would you care for lime?” I saw more than heared the waiter ask him. The answer must have been affirmative, since a crockery bowl of green wedges appeared next to the beer. The jeweled hand salted a finger, then reach for a lime. I could almost feel its cool squirt splash over my lips. Then the beer, next step in a border town ritual that he and I had shared. The bottles appeared on every table up and down the ailse.
“Corona, please,” I said to the waiter. “With lime”.
After that description, would you not order a Corona with lime too?
Vasquez also uses her keen observation skills to heighten our awareness of details that express the emotion of the scene, such as Grace and Sofia having this cup of tea later in the book (I have eliminated the dialogue to not give away any clues; enjoy the full text when you read the book):
She poured our tea… I grabbed a napkin from the holder, knocking over the rest. Sofia placed her hand over the fluttering pile, lifting it back into the slot in one movement… I twisted the napkin in my hand… The middle began to fray, cotton jabs sticking up like soft barbs… The twisted the mass formed a a solid finger-like extension, scolding me for something I did not quite understand… The napkin broke in my tight fist… Sofia reached both her hands to cover mine.
Is this just about a tea party and napkin getting wadded up? I do not think so.
My criticism of Vasquez’s descriptions, is her frequent use of similes (“like” and “as”) when adding images to fill out her descriptions. Some of these images did not enhance my vision of the the story, “The next morning, I carried my coffee out to the truck while I warmed the engine. I opened the door to the cab and slid into the seat like butter into corn-on-the-cob.” Hmmm, butter into corn-on-the-cob? This description sent my mind wandering to food item I have dripped on car seats, or wondering when a sex scene would show up. That is probably not what she intended to convey. Now contrast to a scene later in the book, “…faced them from ten feet away, holding a twenty-two in hands chiseled from rock.” Wow, hands chiseled from rock! not, hand as if they were chiseled from rock. My imagination was focused on those hands as much as Grace’s Glock 40.
One element of mysteries, police-detective, and court-room drama stories that does not attract me is the tendency to become simplistic morality plays, where bad-guys do bad things and god-guy catch them and bring them to justice. While “If the Boots Fit” has possibilities of fitting this plot line, Vasquez directs an interesting dialogue in the final chapters, which brings up the issues of ethics in border town relations, legal and illegal business, and family and personal responsibility. I am glad I kept reading after the crime was solved. At this point there are lots of boots to assess for whom they fit.
Throughout the book desert scenery, flora and fauna, provide the stage for the action. Tucked into the events is a small cactus. In the final scene this image returns us to the cover, a needle point picture of cactus silhouetted against the desert clouds, which our grandmother made during one of their many trips to the Southwest. I have grandma Violet’s needle point of a roadrunner. I hope some day that I might grace a cover to a Grace Callado Mystery.
For ordering information, check out the link for thoughtsonretirment.com (August 8, 2011 post) in the right column of this blog “Life After Retirement”.