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SCRATCHGRAVEL ROAD
by Tricia Fields
Minotaur Books, March 2013
308 pages
$24.99
ISBN: 1250021367


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Since Trish Fields's West Texas police procedural is set in my home state, I wish that I could recommend it wholeheartedly to the mystery-reading community, but I can't. I cannot forgive Josie Gray's incompetence as an officer of the law as she tries to solve the murder of a Mexican national dumped in the desert.

Fields attempts a multilayered work in order to pleasingly mislead mystery readers on a series of satisfying expeditions through Artemis, a fictional West Texas town near the Mexican border. Dramatis personae: sixteen-year-old Teresa Cruz, daughter of police officer Marta Cruz. Teresa, visiting a gang hangout with her scuzzy drug-using boyfriend, witnessed the dumping of a man's body in the Chihuahuan Desert. Cassidy Harper, a young woman in yet another abusive relationship, who overheard her boyfriend talking on the telephone about "Scratchgravel Road." When Cassidy visits the road, she finds the body. Josie Gray, the chief of a three-person police department, single, with love interest Dell, an accountant. Diego Paiva, the suave manager of the toxic-waste cleanup crew working on a derelict uranium-enrichment facility near Artemis. County Coroner Mitchell Cowan. Finally, in West Texas, the weather must be named as a character.

We live in an age where information about the human body, including the dead human body, is easy to come by. Thus, it is disconcerting that, after autopsy, the coroner still does not know whether lesions on the dead man's arms are caused by a bacterial infection or a dose of radiation (it turns out to be neither). The dead man seems to be older than he actually is; his premature aging is blamed on a fatal dose of radiation. In addition, his intestines might have been harmed by radiation, the coroner deduces on page 170. However, on page 302, we learn that uranyl nitrate was poured down the throat of the deceased after being bludgeoned, perhaps to death. Without the body's being alive, the slightly radioactive chemical could not have traveled through his digestive tract. On page 299, we learn that burns on the dead man's arms are not radiation burns, but they are from sodium hydroxide spilled by accident.

We live in an age where information about legal issues is easy to come by. The ritual of reading an arrested person the Miranda warning is memorialized on countless cop shows. It is strange that a suspect on page 295 is not Mirandized. On page 259, in order to tell readers about the progress of an investigation, Chief Josie tells a possible suspect at some length the background and personal habits of the dead man.

Spoiler Alert: the apotheosis of the novel occurs during the desert monsoons, which, weather forecasters somehow predicted days ahead, would yield a one-hundred-year flood.

My advice to this author as she develops her writing career further is to brush up on her law, biology and chemistry, because murder and police procedurals brings those three things into such close juxtaposition.

Cathy Downs, Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, is a longtime devotee of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, April 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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