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Southwestern Slaying 

PR whiz Sasha Solomon embarks on her second mystery

Early in this new mystery by Albuquerque writer Pari Noskin Taichert, protagonist Sasha Solomon has to notify her stroke-impaired mother, Hannah, that a life-long friend of hers has been murdered. Hannah's health is weak, and her memory's shot, so Sasha is surprised by Hannah's energetic response. "Philly didn't have a nice bone in her body," Hannah pronounces of the murdered woman. They'd remained friends out of some loyalty, she suggests--along with the double-edged attraction of the scandalous.

"You know," she tells Sasha, "she slept with your father. ... I caught them on the kitchen table. Right next to the pimento olives and celery." After watching them for a while, Hannah recounts, she hauled in the trash can and dumped a week's worth of garbage on her husband and best friend. Then, "just to watch them squirm," she fixed dinner for the two of them as if nothing had happened, and forced them to eat it.

Sasha is delighted with her mother's story. Prickly women capable of creative payback get respect in her world.

The Belen Hitch is the second novel of freelance journalist and public-relations consultant Taichert. In The Clovis Incident, she introduced Sasha--PR person herself, someone given to paranormal intuition and an advocate of whipped cream as a primary food group. Here, a half-year or so later, she's tamped down her ghostly hallucinations with herbal medicine, but she lets whipped cream rule.

Sasha has been contracted to recommend a tourism draw to off-the-main-route Belen, N.M. Two ideas are in the running, both of which employ the old Fred Harvey House: establish either a train museum or an art museum. The train plan is supported by the history of the rail industry in the area; the art proposal would be anchored and sustained by the work of world-famous painter Phillipa Petty, longtime denizen of Belen. One drawback to the art scheme is that Ms. Petty's work is blasphemously controversial (consider the small-time audience appeal of Moses kissing a pig or Jesus as a cross-dresser). Another is that Ms. Petty is dead. Sasha stumbles on her poisoned body her first day in town.

Despite their history (and probably because of it), Hannah Solomon begs Sasha to find Petty's killer. At that point in the book, the plot stretches murder investigation over marketing possibilities. Also in the mix: Deal with Mom, search for love, nationally promote friend Darnda, and watch her diet spin out of control.

Suitable for chick lit (let's call it what it is), the fact is that this novel is as much about characters' issues and development as it is about fingering a murderer (although that does work; Taichert offers a number of suspects, and pulls out a surprise--albeit at a slightly implausible climax).

Taichert has cast her protagonist as the narrator, and Sasha Solomon's voice is smart, ironic and reader-chummy. Self-pitying but not pathetic, losing out on some things but not a loser, she has qualities of a long-time, sometimes-irritating, girlfriend. With that in mind, one begins to wonder about her eating habits: What she puts away in comfort food (a lot of it Southwest delicious) would supersize many of us. Not for naught does Sasha go from bemoaning that extra 10 pounds at the beginning of the book to considering shedding the extra 20 at the end.

Though she's suffering from dementia and we see her as a patient in rehab, Hannah Solomon is a faceted character. Taichert has pieced her personality together from a combination of local lore, associates, Sasha's recollections and current behavior.

Sasha's friend Darnda (from "darned, another girl")--the over-the-top tacky, sexy grandmother whose psychic powers run to reading the thoughts of any living thing (cockroaches, orchids, boy toys hiding in bathrooms suffering painful erectile function)--provides a good complement to Sasha's bury-yourself-in-business mentality.

Taichert set the artist's murder early in the novel, which gets the two major strands of the plot moving--Sasha's PR research for the Belen project and the increasingly dangerous pursuit of the murderer. While Sasha's public-relations job reads as credible (the author knows what she writes), it hardly makes for compelling reading. And one gushing passage on Fred Harvey's business philosophy is about as appropriate as product placement. The mystery strand does sustain plot interest, however (crossing threads with the project), though final moments are neither sufficiently developed nor entirely credible.

What works is the interest Taichert manages to create between the reader and Sasha and her life. And that's enough to make you welcome more in the series.

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