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While tangents and baffling writing detract, you can't help but like the main character in 'Socorro Blast'

"Witty," "light" and "whimsical" aren't words you'd expect to use to describe a novel that tackles terrorism, religious prejudice and a young woman getting attacked--yet they're all apt in the case of Pari Noskin Taichert's The Socorro Blast.

In her third mystery novel about amateur detective Sasha Solomon, the author of The Clovis Incident and The Belen Hitch once again dispatches her likable heroine to solve a crime, and tangles with topics like racial and religious prejudice. It's an ambitious effort--even if it's undermined here and there by useless plot tangents and runaway metaphors.

Sasha Solomon is a public-relations consultant working on a project in New Mexico. She's gearing up for the assignment and fretting over her on-again, off-again boyfriend when she gets a call that her college-student niece, Gabi, is in the hospital, her arm burned and broken from a pipe bomb that exploded in her mailbox. The words "Arab whore" were painted across her door, leading Sasha to think that her niece was the victim of a hate crime because she's half-Iranian--which annoys Sasha, despite her anxiety, since Gabi's also half-Jewish, and Iranians aren't Arabs. When she arrives at the hospital and sees her mangled niece, she's certain that the hate-crime verdict must be right. Who would want to hurt sweet little Gabi?

But the backstory, which Gabi shares in fits and starts over the next few days, complicates this assessment. Gabi's adviser, Aaron Wahl, is one of the nation's foremost explosives experts, and he and Gabi were working on a top-secret project. It's revealed that they were also having an affair, and that Aaron's wife, Cecelia Sanchez, is not known for being particularly accommodating of her husband's dalliances. Gabi's anger at the investigation and her resistance to telling even Sasha about the project's specifics quickly place her in a cloud of suspicion among investigators and the media.

Sasha spends most of her time trying to figure out who would bomb her niece, a task that gets more complicated by the day. Using her PR skills, she desperately tries to stage-manage the affair by half-deflecting, half-using a reporter friend to shape Gabi's story, and trying (and failing) to keep her weepy relatives off the air. While she focuses on Wahl's obnoxious wife as a possible player in the attack, she runs across a number of suspicious characters. Plus, she's confounded by the disappearance of Aaron Wahl, who appears to have been kidnapped.

Sasha's a quirky woman. She occasionally keeps whipped cream in her purse and indulges in "hits" throughout the day. She has a big mouth and almost no self-control, a dangerous combination when a criminal on the lam has already bombed your niece and is trying to keep from getting caught. In her sleuthing, she relies far more on instinct than actual evidence, but this actually proves to be a strength, as all the professional detectives on the case are dull slaves to procedure.

Thanks to her vices, problems with men and struggles with her very real family, Sasha's very likable. Her sister Eva, Gabi's mother, is a devout Jew who can't understand Sasha's relative atheism, and Sasha doesn't understand Eva's extreme devotion. And then there's Gabi herself, hardly a victim, except in the physical sense, who seems insistent on angering people to the point where they doubt her. As she's trying to help, Sasha keeps getting rebuffed, but is drawn in again by a family she loves in spite of its problems.

Unfortunately, Noskin Taichert ends up with a tangled story on her hands. There are a bunch of unmemorable characters who distract from the main tale, as well as several dead-end side stories; there's even an odd foray into the supernatural. There's some action, but most of it is lumped together at the end. Sasha, while entertaining, is not much of an intellectual, so those who like elaborate plot twists and brainy problem-solving might be disappointed. And while Noskin Taichert is rightly acclaimed for avoiding hackneyed clichés, she often ends up tripping over her words and coming up with baffling phrases like, "The man had the aesthetic sensibility of a piece of soggy toast," and, "Night chased the morning's tail and slammed it against a wall."

Noskin Taichert dedicated The Socorro Blast to people who fight religious bias and intolerance, and she does a good job of showing that there are lots of shades of gray when it comes to prejudice. And she's a creative, experimental writer, but sometimes overshoots in her quest for a distinctive style. Still, Sasha is a strong character--to the point where her small personal dramas and quirks are almost more interesting than the crime plot itself. She's a keeper, but the mystery format might not be.

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