Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Crime Fiction: Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman

Pot hunting, the age-old business of digging up Native American pottery to collect or sell, is at the center of Skeleton Picnic (Poisoned Pen Press), the second book in Michael Norman’s series featuring J.D. Books, a law-enforcement ranger with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) working in the Southwest.

Books, whose life has left him with some pain and sadness, is a character worth getting to know, a man trying to do a tough job in an area where the federal government is frequently reviled.

His current case involves the odd disappearance of well-liked Utah residents Rolly and Abigail Rogers, who do a lot of pot hunting. The Rogerses’ house has also been ransacked, suggesting a serious criminal plan.

Without sounding didactic, Norman explains a good deal in these pages about pot hunting, introducing a quasi-official group of Native Americans with their own ax to grind. The subject is very controversial in that region of the United States, as many residents feel entitled to dig up pots because their grandparents did the same.

As Books investigates, more people are drawn into the story, from the young deputy the local sheriff assigns to this investigation to the local attorney (who’s also Books’ girlfriend) and Books’ own cash-strapped brother-in-law. Adding to the plot complications, Books’ father, from whom he was once estranged, has become seriously ill. So there’s no shortage of emotional strife here in addition to the slowly revealed details of Norman’s tale. It means we get a puzzle to unravel as well as a portrait of complex human relationships, both intriguing.

BLM agents are not thick on the ground in mystery fiction, so it’s interesting for readers to learn about another area of law enforcement.

I have a problem, though, with this novel’s editing. I hesitate to bring it up, because Phoenix-based Poisoned Pen Press usually does a good job. But really, if you are going to feature a family named Rogers, somebody -- the writer? the copy editor? -- ought to understand that the plural is Rogerses, and that the plural possessive is Rogerses’. It’s not just names ending in “s” that are a problem here, either. We’re offered a sentence such as “The Gentrys appeared to be living high and well,” which is fine. But then we get “no sign of the Gentry’s black Cadillac,” which most definitely isn’t.

These sorts of avoidable errors can easily distract readers from the pleasures to be had from otherwise thoughtful books. It’s like going to a nice restaurant, only to note that your server has dirty fingernails. After that, it will be hard to enjoy your dinner quite as much. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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