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Tucson Weekly Dog Days

Local Author Sinclair Browning Makes A Splash In The Subgenre Of Southwestern Murder Mysteries With 'The Last Song Dogs.'

By Emil Franzi

MARCH 29, 1999: 

The Last Song Dogs, by Sinclair Browning (Bantam). Paper, $5.50.

SINCLAIR BROWNING'S new mystery series character, Trade Ellis, is a ranch owning cowgirl private-eye who shares a great many personal characteristics with...Sinclair Browning. The author, known to her friends as "Zeke," grew up on a ranch in Cochise County, and likes to call herself a "dirty-shirt cowgirl." Which has much to do with why her Trade Ellis persona is both authentic and believable.

Trade lives northwest of Tucson in a small village that's clearly Catalina, where Browning has lived for the last 20 years. Trade drives a big, Cummins diesel 3/4-ton Dodge pickup, the kind of vehicle that makes macho guys drool. It also happens to be the vehicle of choice for Browning, who you may catch driving down the road in her own Dodge, the custom license plate " WRIDER" paying homage to her two greatest loves--horses and books.

Southern Arizona landmarks abound in her ficition, and the mountains and cafés in The Last Song Dogs are no exception. "Song dog," dear gringo, is another term for coyote. It also happens to be what Trade's old high school's cheerleaders called themselves; and as their 25-year reunion is about to commence, somebody's knocking them off one by one. Another authentic biographical note: Browning was herself a member of her high-school cheerleading squad.

Browning also does a great job with her other characters. Anyone who's ever been to a later high-school reunion will recognize many of them (and their behavior), as well as a few folks from those Arizona working ranches that have yet to be converted to tile roofs and golf courses. And the plot moves and twists fast enough to keep the pages turning.

Browning is known for her two previous historical novels: Enju, concerning the Camp Grant massacre, and America's Best, based on the true experiences of her husband's family as prisoners of the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II. She's also the co-author of the very successful Lyons on Horses, now in its 20th printing (including a German edition).

Dog's Western ranch material and native American lore will surely fascinate both westerners and urban dwellers much in the way that Tony Hillerman's books have built a captive audience among those who think everything west of the Hudson is Indian Country.

Like Hillerman, Browning is the genuine article. Most of the New Yorkers who publish this stuff can't tell, as evidenced by a simple perusal of their non-fiction offerings. Browning is good enough that she could convince most of them that boiled jackrabbit ears are an Arizona ranch delicacy.

Fortunately, she hasn't. Instead, she writes gloriously about Southern Arizona, and produces a first-rate suspense novel to boot. She shares with Hillerman one other valuable commodity: The lady can write! Publisher's Weekly says, "The action moves briskly and is boosted by the motley cast of characters and Browning's inspired descriptions of the Southwest landscape."

Those who are already into the increasingly popular subgenre of mysteries based on contemporary western female cops and P.I.s--written by women like J. A. Jance, Nevada Barr and Sue Grafton--will enjoy adding the first of Sinclair Browning's Trade Ellis series to their reading. But even if you're not a devotee, this is a great read by one of Southern Arizona's most enjoyable writers.


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