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Meander Through Time 

Richard Benke's brainy historical novel pieces together an engaging tale

At last count, I had identified nearly a dozen point-of-view shifts in Richard Benke's peripatetic, continent- and history-wandering mystery. And that's not counting the one to the Kentish constable who reappears toward the end. Or the move to the French customs agent in the last scene. This book has to close; any character could up and join the conversation with a story of his own, and the thing would never finish.

Or maybe that's one of Benke's points. City of Stone has a long and circuitous back-story, and just like real history, it gets pieced together, one partially told tale at a time.

The novel--Albuquerque, N.M., Associated Press reporter Richard Benke's second--takes place mostly along the U.S./Mexico border, but the opening quickly shifts to the grounds of an 800-year-old castle in southeastern England.

Lord Owen Wye, the 47th Earl of Wye, has his early-spring castle gardening interrupted by a telegram from El Paso, Texas. Black-sheep brother Derek, long off in the pursuit of fortune or other gratification, has apparently gotten himself firebombed to death on the Mexican border, and a member of the family needs to fly over. Although by training and birth order, Owen might have been the logical emissary, youngest brother John, the "art appraiser," is sent to represent them. Their mother is dying, and Owen is occupied with estate matters, but he'll live to regret that decision.

Meanwhile in New Mexico, old Jace Baker, at 108 years old, does his wandering in memories of years past. Those days include brushes with Pancho Villa, George Patton, Brig. Gen. John Pershing and ... Lord Colin, the 46th Earl of Wye.

What these characters--along with Michoacán-born "soldier of not much fortune" Jack Felix--have in common is lost gold. A half-million dollars in gold bullion--potential mordida--is said to have disappeared when Pershing began pursuing Pancho Villa in 1916.

What Owen, John and Derek Wye, along with their dead father, Colin, have in common is that the family business is espionage. And the family business, directly or indirectly, could bring about the end of the family.

Derek, it turns out, was not a gifted spy, but he is a useful character: He serves as nexus for Benke's storylines, which include the search for the gold, international espionage, cross-border cattle rustling and the Mexican drug business.

It feels as if Benke had fun writing this book, and there's some lightly brainy fun to be had reading it. First, there's the history. Histories, more exactly. The Wye land, set as it is, on a road to Dover, across from France, with a view of Canterbury Cathedral, is in a position to witness the Norman Invasion, fallout from Thomas Becket's assassination in the cathedral (and the annual April pilgrimages to honor the martyr) and Gen. Patton's fake army of tanks, planes and Jeeps inflated to throw Hitler off true Allied invasion plans. (It's then that Patton, in a "social" visit to Wye Castle, told 7-year-old Owen about the lost Villa gold.)

Benke places the young (Lt.) Patton with Gen. Pershing in New Mexico, where he also places young Jace Baker, as corporal. His accounts of Villa's exploits are smoothly integrated, and attributions of political motivations are credible (that Germany supported Villa to keep the United States busy and out of World War I; Britain supported the U.S. to free it up to enter the war).

Benke's writing is smart and dense, but his clipped, fragment-laden narrator's voice can be exasperating. (Though the fragments inexplicably seem to disappear by the end of the text.) Rather than following a traditional plotline, the action in City of Stone is a little whack-a-mole--with situations popping up and being smashed on a flatter narrative plane. Even the presumptive climax--when the major players come together--has the quality of a foregone conclusion. That's probably due to the multiple storylines but doesn't damage overall effect.

Benke knows his U.S.-Mexico borderlands; he relates convincing history, and he incorporates pleasing thematic subtleties in the work. The City of Stone of the title refers specifically to an area in New Mexico made up of massive boulders. It's where a tracker finds evidence related to cattle-rustling. Stone itself, with its fixedness and immutability in contrast to humanity's transience and mutability, also resonates in Wye Castle's story and that of a family at the end of its bloodline.

With the pilgrim as central motif--from the early faithful trudging to Canterbury Cathedral, through Chaucer's depiction of them, to the 21st-century iteration, five Mexicans crossing "into (U.S.) sagebrush that, in every way but economic, looked just like the sagebrush they'd left"--Benke presents an engaging contemporary tale seen through a meander through time. City of Stone BY RICHARD BENKE

UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO PRESS

223 PAGES, $24.95

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