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Weekly Alibi Mysterious New Mexico

Michael McGarrity's Hermit's Peak

By Dorothy Cole

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Michael McGarrity writes mysteries with a fine, well-developed sense of place. That place happens to be New Mexico. Without interrupting his narratives with long, drawn-out scenic digressions, McGarrity uses the landscape as a character. It is easily the most vivid character he's got.

He skillfully blends real towns and landscapes with places from his imagination. I would literally have to check an atlas to be able to tell exactly where the border between the two lies. Because the ranches and villages of McGarrity's imagination are limned with the details of actual locales, they come across as being as real as places on the map. Anglo and Hispanic ranchers speak with the accents and preoccupations of their real-life compatriots, even if what they are actually saying comes out a bit stilted.

McGarrity's human characters, on the whole, are pretty predictable. The hero of Hermit's Peak and the three mystery novels that precede it is a state cop named Kevin Kerney. Although he has experienced all kinds of personal betrayal and tragedy in his life as a straight-shooting law officer, Kerney still maintains the forthright honesty and unflinching loyalty that make him a natural alter ego for the author. They even have the same kind of alliterated Irish initials. Kerney is also physically rugged and really sexy without realizing it. All this is part of the formula for Westerns and detective fiction, of which this book is a hybrid. If the hero were not so smart and likable, the story would be less fun.

Kerney's love interest is a U.S. Army officer named Sara Brannon. McGarrity paints her as a cross between G.I. Joe and a blow-up Barbie doll. Her personal insights are unconvincing, but so what? The plot needed a girl, and she makes a good foil for the somewhat repressed Kerney.

The various buddies, crooks and co-workers who help move the action along are believable within the universe they inhabit, with one jarring exception. For some inexplicable reason, McGarrity has chosen to name one character, an older woman who knew Kerney's parents, "Erma Fergurson." This is not the way to suspend disbelief. If the author is trying to hint that his mom went to school with the famous Albuquerque author Erna Fergusson or that his roots are well-connected, he would be better off giving the character a different name and making her a writer instead of a painter. You know that border I was talking about, between reality and invention? Erma's name forces her to sit right on top of it. If McGarrity wanted to make up a character out of whole cloth, he should still have named her in such a way as to allow the reader to pretend that she might exist. That's what fiction is all about.

Otherwise, McGarrity uses his knowledge of New Mexico to good effect. The details of the story can be disgusting at times, but no worse than what comes up in many police investigations. The action is less violent but more engaging than his earlier Tularosa, the first in the series. Not having read the intervening volumes, I can't say whether that indicates a progression.

The mysteries that Kerney solves are somewhat convoluted for my taste, and the detective's ability to guess the direction to take amid the hints and false curves indicates a sharpness that the character lacks in other areas. There are also far too many incidental characters introduced in each volume. I put that down to the process of universe creation that goes along with writing a series. Melody, the cute little medical examiner, may just be a complication for the love story. Then again, she'd make a great lead for a spin-off.

Besides Kerney, Brannon and New Mexico, Hermit's Peak and Tularosa have something kind of strange in common. The solutions to both cases hinge on the violent deaths of two relatively innocent young men. Each is the grown son of one of Kerney's close colleagues. That seems like more than bad luck. Maybe the next book will be about officers refusing to work with the guy in order to protect their families.

Hermit's Peak, Tularosa and probably the two in between -- Serpent Gate and Mexican Hat -- are pretty good mysteries, amusing Westerns and accurate pictures of New Mexico. Michael McGarrity didn't set out to create high art, just decent entertainment. In that he has once again succeeded. (Scribner, hardcover, $24)


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