From The Record, May 5th…
Bad Country by C. B. McKenzie was the 2013 winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize. Hillerman, who died in 2008, was himself a prize-winning author, having captured the Edgar, the Anthony, the Spur, and the Agatha awards, among other tributes. The Hillerman Award is given for the best first mystery set in the southwestern US.
Bad Country tells the story of Rodeo Grace Garnet, a former championship rodeo rider and army vet, who is trying to scratch out a living as a private detective in AMexica, as his pal Luis Encarnacion likes to call the border lands of Arizona and Sonora. As a mixed blood man with a Pascua Yaqui mother and a Mexican father, he has connections in both racial communities; but he is also regarded with suspicion by members of both communities.
The story begins with a man dressing up in new clothes and getting a ride from what appears to be a people smuggler. The next we see of him is his lifeless corpse discovered by Rodeo Garnet in his very own driveway. This is not entirely odd because Rodeo lives close to El Hoyo, the Hole, a yawning canyon used by illegal migrants because it is difficult to conduct aerial surveillance on people moving through the route called La Entrada. This is, in fact, the kind of terrain where Donald Trump plans to build his Great, Great Wall…but that is another story!
But anyone who has made his way up the trail on foot would not be wearing clothes that look like they just came out of Walmart. As Sheriff Ray Molina points out to Rodeo, “You’re the only one ever crazy enough to live out here. The Apaches gave this place up without a fight, the Spanish gave it up without a fight, Mexicans don’t want it, Anglos wouldn’t have it when it was free land grant and even dumbass Snowbirds from Canadia won’t move down here with three hundred and sixty-six days of sunshine a year.”
Nor is this the only killing in the region. This is the fifth murder in the county in recent weeks, all Indians of different tribes and all left by the side of a road where they were sure to be discovered. But it is another death that is going to absorb Rodeo’s time and interest. Luis has found him a job in “Tuxson,” as Luis likes to call it. Katherine Rocha, also a Yaqui, wants him to investigate the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel Rocha. The young man had fallen off a bridge onto the bank of the Santa Cruz River. He had a minor bullet wound, so the official thinking is that he was shot by someone from a rival gang as part of a drug war.
Rodeo packs himself and his dog up and moves into a motel in Tucson to carry out his search. You may remember the line from the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, when Audrey, the local kid, tells Alice’s son Tommy, the newcomer, “Tucson is the weird capital of the world”. Nothing in Bad Country will disabuse you of that notion.
A large part of the investigation consists of conversations between Rodeo and people who either want information from him, or whom he thinks know something that might be helpful to him. Mackenzie uses these convoluted chats to provide more insight into who Rodeo is, as well as to draw portraits of the people Rodeo is talking to. Some of them display an almost Quakerish habit of referring to Rodeo as “friend”. But it soon becomes evident that the more they invoke that word, the more intense their hatred of Rodeo really is. And as time passes, it becomes clear that nearly all the assumptions that Rodeo had started off with about other people’s actions and motives have been largely incorrect.
One character who occupies Rodeo’s thoughts is his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff Molina’s daughter Sirena Rae. A legendary local beauty, she seems to occupy just about everyone else’s thoughts too, if the number of inquiries Rodeo receives about her is any indication. And everyone he asks about her seems to know a little something, or has a story to tell. But Sirena herself remains almost invisible, making one brief dramatic appearance, only to vanish again.
In the end, it is the murder of Sirena’s father the sheriff that gives Rodeo the vital clue he needs to understand what has been going on in Los Jarros County, and what the connection has been between all of the violent deaths. By then he realizes that the death of young Samuel is not part of the larger criminal conspiracy; but that conspiracy has implications for the political future of the State of Arizona and is a bizarre case of life imitating art.
This is an engaging tale. The reader has to overcome the temptation to lose patience with the conversations that Rodeo engages in and to demand that McKenzie get on with the story. The conversations are the bulk of the story. My one objection is that McKenzie tends to incorporate southwest slang into the dialogue that does not mean much to the rest of us. For instance, “Cowboy coffee” actually refers to a technique for making a cup of coffee. And it is strange to see the word Anglo used to refer to all non-Hispanic people of European descent. By that definition, francophones are Anglos. Plus you might want to keep a map of Arizona handy, because it will help you follow Rodeo in his travels.
P.S. Crime fiction lovers are in for a treat next Thursday May 11th at 7:00 p.m., when former Champlain professor and mystery reviewer for The Record Jim Napier will be launching his crime fiction novel Legacy at Uplands. See you there!