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by Reavis Z. Wortham
Poisoned Pen, July 2014
250 pages
ISBN: 1464202583

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In Reavis Wortham's fourth Red River mystery, Pepper reaches puberty. The small settlement of Center Springs, Texas, near the Oklahoma-Texas border, seems suddenly too small for her. The adults around her chastise her for the music that she listens to on the transistor radio she keeps pressed to her ear. She dresses like a Hippie and longs to go to California to take part in the Summer of Love.

Instead of The Summer of Love, Lamar County seems to be headed to The Winter of Discontent. First, Tommy Lee Stark has been found sitting in his pickup truck shot to death. In addition, unbeknownst to Pepper, her cousin Top, and their grandparents Constable Ned and Becky Parker, two lovers, having met in Las Vegas, are headed toward Center Springs to seek a clean country life. Unfortunately, Anthony Agrioli is trying to leave his life as a professional hitman for the Las Vegas Mob behind him. Samantha, Anthony's beloved, is the daughter of the Mob boss and Las Vegas Casino owner who once employed Anthony. Anthony and Samantha have turned their backs on The Family, and now The Family closely tails them to the small town in far northeast Texas.

Center Springs has another, hidden, Las Vegas connection. Lamar county's sheriff has been seen with known drug runners, and he has a pile of money, some real, and some counterfeit, he needs to launder. He visits mobster Malachi Best, Samantha's father, in Las Vegas for advice on how to clean up his illegal fortune. Unfortunately, he also passes a good many counterfeit bills over the mobster's gambling tables that night. Now sheriff Griffin is also in the Mob's gunsights. Center Springs becomes a St. Valentine's Day Massacre-waiting-to-happen in October.

Reavis Wortham's fictional Center Springs is modeled on the unincorporated community of Chicota, Texas, a few miles south of the lazy bends of the Red River, and not far from Paris, Texas. His book contrasts the minds of the fourteen-year-old children Top and Pepper with those of their elders, long centered in the rhythms of day and night, winter and spring, and with professional hit men from far beyond their ken. The book alternates chapters from the points of view of the gangsters, the lawmen, and the children, yet readers are not left confused by the changes in narrator. I suspect Wortham does not much rub elbows with gangsters: he has his do some things that would get them killed in a minute.

This book is not a "mystery"; it is a meditation. The title, VENGEANCE IS MINE, comes from the biblical notion that vengeance should be left, not to human hands, but to God's. In Wortham's fictional world, the tinny transmissions of transistor radios barely intrude on the sounds of cicadas singing. Those sounds, those lyrics from afar, are harbingers of change. Besides the radio, the army corps of engineers dams a creek to create a reservoir, resculpting the very land (as Wortham in real life must have seen Mayse Lake, an empoundment of Sanders Creek, cover over familiar landmarks). "Foreign" ways of life, drug running, gambling, and counterfeiting resculpt the moral landscape. However, murder - and there are a lot of those in this book - murder isn't foreign; it's a close to us as home cooking on a Sunday noon.'

Dr. Cathy Downs is professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature. She is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, July 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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