IT'S PACKED WITH the makings of a powerhouse mystery: A divorced, post-menopausal librarian. The exotica of tai chi. Suspense heightened by hours on AOL. Academic jargon! A girl campus cop! A house cat!
Just kidding. They actually work. Academese and all.
The Stolen Blue is, in fact, an engaging mystery. Earlier mysteries by New Mexico author Judith Van Gieson (Ditch Rider, Hotshots, Parrot Blues, The Lies that Bind, The Wolf Path) featured sleuth Neil Hamel. With Blue, Van Gieson introduces a new protagonist, Claire Reynier.
Claire, fresh from a 28-year marriage to an anal-retentive University of Arizona professor now fitted with a grad-student wife, has taken a job at the University of New Mexico to start anew. Head of book acquisitions for the Center for Southwest Research, she's settled in the foothills of Albuquerque and travels the Southwest trolling for collectible tomes. The volumes she gathers as the action opens are the life's collection of her own mentor, the obstreperous Burke Lovell, who is dying of emphysema and is too distrustful of his children to allow them to execute his will.
To pick up the books, Claire travels to Lovell's retreat, located in a secluded Arizona ranch/national forest area on the Blue River. No longer a working ranch, Lovell's is a grand log house, situated on the river and replete with wildlife. His decision to entrust both his books and the executorship of his will to Claire, and then walk out like Oates (or as Edward Abbey apparently tried unsuccessfully to do) to die in the snow, throws Claire into the middle of a family legal battle. And when the most valuable portion of Lovell's collection is then stolen out of Claire's truck, she's thrown into the middle of a criminal investigation.
Several complications immediately arise, and with them categories of suspects. At issue are the political and invidious sides of academia, antagonisms between ranchers and conservationists, the potentially cutthroat world of rare books, and old-fashioned sibling rivalry.
Van Gieson dabbles in the seamier side of academe. As a new hire at UNM, Claire meets naked resentment. "It was said about academics that the competition was so brutal because the stakes were so small," Van Gieson writes, and more than one co-worker would like to see Claire trip up. So when the books go missing, Claire has reason to question the co-workers jealous of her post, the patronizing supervisor who scorns her taste in fiction and art, and the woman whom she replaced.
Environmentalists also play a role in the action. Van Gieson weaves a bit of the current wolf reintroduction controversy into her narrative, along with a little ranch and rural culture. It's a county where law enforcement "gets hired by whether or not they fit the uniform," where if you "disagree with anybody down there you get shot for your trouble," and where the Nature Conservancy is anathema.
The marketplace for rare books is also surprisingly rife with suspects. With passionate book collectors, limited supplies, and buyers willing to fork out thousands of dollars for a single edition, unattractive human impulses can emerge -- like the temptation to murder an old woman.
Van Gieson's Southwest provides fertile settings for this series. She describes the ambiance of the Albuquerque foothills, and gets Claire out on highways toward Arizona and Santa Fe, painting the spectacular and treacherous Blue from roads threading down the winding, snow-blown route to the river. Her detail is sharp and evocative, and the setting infuses the narrative with the Southwest's richness.
Heroine Claire Reynier exudes a distinct, modest appeal. Van Gieson uses the two sides of tai chi chuan to represent her protagonist: on one hand, the fluid, smooth, dance-like postures that are, in fact, a meditation to establish balance; on the other, the martial art whose objective is to overcome opponents by throwing them off balance. And Claire's training as a researcher endows her with valuable investigative skills. She's mastered the mysteries -- not to mention the class distinctions -- of the Internet.
Van Gieson's story moves smartly along, her allusions touch a Southwest reading audience, and her mystery doesn't give itself away prematurely. If the culminating scene seems a bit contrived, and the loose ends tie up just too neatly, it's nonetheless a very entertaining book, and a promising new series.