Recently, I noticed a sore throat and head congestion coming on. Best to call in sick for a couple of days to stay home with my hot tea and warm fire in the wood stove. Good thing that the box from Amazon.com had arrived with the freshly printed copy of Susan Vasquez’s book, Can’t Judge A Boot, the second in her series of Grace Callado mysteries. Between running several loads of laundry, mopping the upstairs tile floors, and cleaning the bathroom, (hey, what else does someone do when he is sick?), I curled up with Grace for another adventure. When the next volume in the series comes out, I hope I get sick again.
Can’t Judge A Boot is set a few months after the first volume, If the Boots Fit. When constructing a mystery series, the author must address the elements of each volume as well as back-stories and cliff hangers that entice us to pick up earlier additions and wait for the next story. Ms. Vasquez dropped numerous clues in If the Boots Fit that her characters had issues that their investigations stirred up. Throughout Can’t Judge A Boot, she provides glimpses of what these issues might be. By the final chapters, we have begun to assemble a dossier about Grace, Cap, Woolsey, Rosa, Sofia, Martin, et al, enticing enough to continue our investigation. As my first boss, a psychoanalyst and psychiatric unit chief would say when we were piecing together a patient’s story, “It’s all sex and violence that drive the story”. While Ms. Vasquez investigates the consequences of these themes in this story, be careful of judging the book by its cover.
… rules got me nowhere, and there are a lot of rules in this world.
Right in the second paragraph, Ms. Vasquez sets out the conflict of this story for Grace Callado, a provisional private investigator. She cannot follow the rules of society. She will follow a lead for evidence, even when cautioned by her boss, Cap, psychic neighbor, Sophia, auto mechanic, Martin, and brother-in-law, Peter. She will solve the murder, even when it leaves her with a legacy that she must hide. Can’t Judge A Boot is about generational legacies that end up where the person never intended.
A dropped bottle pulled our attention away from the parking area. Martin, tall and tense, appeared behind the bay surrounded in darkness. His hands lay slack at his side, and all accusations stopped.
Judgment require awareness, observations, , analyses, and conclusions. Part of a good suspense novel is the author’s ability to provide us with just enough information to draw the wrong conclusions. Sometimes these dead-end paths are followed by the characters of the books. Sometimes, we file them in our dossier, only to shake our heads later when additional evidence cautions us about making judgments too soon.
So instead, I postponed, taking my path of least resistance, the one that ran into the long wash east of my trailer and directly into the natural balance of the desert. The steadiness of the mesa nearby calmed me on my walks.
Ms. Vasquez has refined her writing style between volumes, combining her succinct narrative style with carefully placed metaphors. The path of least resistance describes both the personality characteristic of Grace Callado and the landscape behind her home. The steadiness of which she refers is both the enduring desert landscape and the state of mind that Grace seeks when working on the case.
He pointed a finger at my chest, each word prodding me for my folly.
Essential to judgement are words and actions. Words define and describe. Actions verify. Words can be used to clarify or mislead. Actions can be misinterpreted, especially when someone has already drawn conclusions. Can’t Judge A Boot centers around a murder, which on the surface appears to be a gang related retaliation, but to which a manuscript of words is attached. Throughout the book Grace, not a big reader, tries to avoid analyzing what the words might mean, preferring to follow actions. Yet, she is often deceived by what other’s say and do, until she can merge the two into one story.
Parking in front my sister’s, I thought how much this house fit Peter and her. An older home when they bought it, they had revamped it with modern conveniences – strategic lighting on the outside, efficient kitchen and bathrooms on the inside. Teresa and Peter reached into their past for meaning and history, revered the older style. But they lived squarely in the present day.
Many of Ms. Vasquez’s clues are hidden plainly for us to find or miss in her descriptions. Is the above description of a suburban home really about a gentrified house? Or, might we be drawn into the idea that we build the lifestyles that we wish to have? Or, might we wonder what is the history, the past, which Peter and Teresa have designed out of their present? Or, might this be a description of so many of Mr. Vasquez’s readers, living comfortably in their middle class neighborhoods and lives, but concealing secrets of more passionate times in youth? For any story to succeed, beyond just being intriguing, we, the readers should be able to identify with the characters. Such questions can begin to allows for self-discovery as well as adding more evidence to our dossier.
“Each of us makes choices when we express ourselves in language, and in written form sometimes those choices are easier to study. Oral language, with its intonations and nuance has its own particular appeal, but the written form offers an academic quality that is captivating. It forces different choices on the writer, connotes different meaning, creates a fertile capacity for contextual discourse.”
Okay, maybe I’m getting a little too into this story. But, could that paragraph not be something from my blog? Stories set in familiar places, with people whom we could place in our lives, and activities that we could be engaged in, bring us into the story. In one of those clues, I noticed that Peter grew up in Centerville, VA, before marrying and locating in El Paso. Well, Centerville, VA is only about two hours from my part of the mountains. Hmmm. I better keep an ear out for the snap of a twig in the forest. I can see this trail leading Grace into the back hallows of the Appalachians some day. Okay, maybe I’m getting a little too into this series.
I saw Sofia through the kitchen window, lit up by interior light in the dusk. I began letting the words build-up in my mind. Words like: ‘never threaten me with pilgrimages again,’ or ‘your son is not a child,’ or even ‘that’s the last time I ever drink tea with you.’ But the back door swung open, and Sofia rushed down the steps and ran to Martin’s driver’s side door. There she stopped, placing her hands on her hips and a look of defiance on her face. But, it lasted only a moment, for when Martin stepped out of the truck, Fia grabbed onto her son and held him tight as a swaddling cloth.
Grace grapples with words often. She usually anticipates that what comes naturally will be misunderstood, and more often will aggravate a situation. Sofia, on the other hand, speaks carefully, and usually with double meanings. Ms. Vasquez, in just a few sentences, can send us into mis-judgments, only to be corrected the actions of either of these woman. We anticipate Grace’s faux pas and Sofia’s reproach, only to be surprised at the compassion of a mother to her son, of any age. Embedded in this story is the relationship of parents to children, of any age.
‘I can’t even call what I’m doing investigating, Peter. It’s a tangled mess of non-answers.’
Judgments connote informed decisions. Suspense is sustained by offering only enough information to keep us hooked. People with information to hide can evade the data through lies, deceit, innuendo, omission, and silence. When confronted with words that become a tangled mess of non-answers, Grace must see evidence other than through interview and confession.
Woolsey was seated at the chair in front of Cap’s desk. They looked like I had caught them in the middle of a private conversation, that awkward stop when you could nearly see the words hanging in the air, they were so obvious. What I couldn’t tell was the emotion in the room. The tense feeling that I might have expected was absent as the animosity. I spoke up, wanting to set the right mood.
Words and emotions originate in and are interpreted in different parts of the brain. Judgments come from yet another region. Yet, all are connected neurologically. Words without emotions relay facts, but not truth. Emotions without words experience passions, but without governance. Judgment without either results in unforgiving prejudice, for prejudice seeks neither compassion nor understanding. The boss whom I referred to early also taught me, early in my career, to avoid making judgments about patients. My job was to listen, question, observe, and allow the evidence to build the case. Follow these boots before making your judgment.