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This week in books: a private investigator in Ajo, an anthropologist's memoir and a look at Death Valley

The Devil on Eighty-Five

By Clark LohrBarZF Press

$12.95; 270 pages; crime fiction

As Clark Lohr points out in the material accompanying this new indie-published novel, fiction can be a vehicle for examining society. "The American crime novel," he writes, is "sociological," with deep literary roots. And he addresses social issues in The Devil on Eighty-Five.

In this second Manny Aguilar mystery, Manny, an investigator for a Tucson criminal defense lawyer, is assigned the case of a Tohono O'odham cowboy accused of murdering his wife. The investigation takes Manny west of town to the reservation and beyond, to Why, Ajo, and into the drug- and people-smuggling routes near the Devil's Highway.

The contemporary issues Lohr examines are ones we recognize: the rupture of traditional Tohono O'odham tribal lands by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the culture of smuggling, the incursion into the U.S. of Mexican cartels. Lohr has done his research. In addition to seeing effects of these in the field, Manny has long pillow-talk conversations about them with his clairvoyant, polytheistic girlfriend (whose practical perspective you suspect might be Lohr's). There is quite a lot of talking in this book. There's so much information and talking, in fact, that there's not much room for plot development or suspense.

An Anthropologist's Arrival

By Ruth M. Underhill; edited by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Stephen E. Nash

The University of Arizona Press

$21.95; 240 pages; memoir

Looking back on her life, nonagenarian anthropologist Ruth Murray Underhill reflected on fame: " ... my colleagues all received a certain amount of status. ... I didn't take a teaching job and have students who would be my charioteers and talk about what I'd done and advertise me to the world. My colleagues got somebody like that but they didn't do very much afterward. ... I always just wanted to do something."

Quite remarkably, this East Coast Quaker raised in the Victorian era did something. Born in New York in 1883 to an upper-crust family, she flouted social expectations, graduated from Vassar, traveled, did social work with poor Italians in New York City, got wild in Greenwich Village, joined the suffrage movement, went with the Red Cross to Italy during World War I, had an abortion, got married, got divorced, earned a Ph.D. in her 40s, spent years camped out near and visiting the homes of Southwest Indians and decades writing and teaching about Native American culture. Her Autobiography of a Papago Woman was called a "breakthrough in ethnographic life history."

Denver anthropologists Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Nash have done an admirable job of re-creating Underhill's life. To her unpublished autobiography they added archived materials and recorded interviews, and they came up with an engaging story told in a consistent voice—candid, curious, intelligent, reflective, a little irreverent. She probably was a good teacher when she wasn't out doing something.

Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth

By Roger Naylor

Rio Nuevo Publishers$12.95; 80 pages; travel

Travel writer and humorist Roger Naylor touts Death Valley as the "hottest and coolest place on earth," and he makes a compelling case to that effect in his new book. To stunning images from a couple of dozen photographers, Naylor adds narrative, sidebars, "fast facts," mini-musings and practical advice. He celebrates the area as a humorist can: ironically, with an occasional flash of surprising sincerity. Naylor provides history—geological as well as human—with tales tall and otherwise, and descriptions and guides for lodging, drives and hikes. The photos of salt flats, badlands, mountains, canyons, ghost towns and abandoned mines are amazing.

And Naylor's prose? Droll. "I think I speak for most people when I say, if you aren't forced to eat your traveling companions, it is a successful journey no matter when you reach your destination."

Along with lyrical. "I lay on the hardpack (of the Racetrack Playa). ... The surface was so smooth and precise it could have been tiled by angels. ... I closed my eyes and could hear for the first time the creak of the earth as it turned on its axis."

Makes you want to visit Death Valley. In winter, anyway.

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