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Journalist Bruce Itule makes the successful jump to fiction with 'The Gold of San Xavier.'

At a composition conference a while ago in our fair city, someone asked a poetry center director about writing short stories.

Her response, selectively recalled, was something like: "I could no sooner write short stories than fly to Saturn." Whatever some writing teachers claim about writing being, well, writing--genre be damned--it makes sense that writers would be better at one form--say, graphic novel or obituary--than others.

I thought about that issue of literary genres--and of jumping genres--while reading Bruce Itule's The Gold of San Xavier. He's a long-time journalist and ASU and Penn State journalism writing instructor, but this is his first novel. I had to wonder if his skills would transfer easily to fiction.

The Gold of San Xavier is set in 1993. When it opens, journalist (Rule No. 1: Write about what you know) Nick Genoa is preparing to leave New York for Tucson to research an article on the restoration of San Xavier for Smithsonian magazine. A refugee from The New York Times and a collapsed marriage, he's ready for freelance work on a number of fronts, including, as it turns out, crime investigation.

When he gets to Tucson, he discovers that a beloved San Xavier priest, Father John, has just been dispatched by screwdriver to the brain. Project conservators had recently turned over to him a cache of 18th-century Spanish gold ingots and silver coins they'd uncovered in the mission. The cache is missing and the priest dead when one of the Tohono O'odham team assistants, Jimmy Longfellow, a fellow of already sketchy relations with the law, is arrested. Nick suspects the police jumped the gun, and he visits Jimmy in jail. Sure enough, he decides Jimmy might be innocent, and he begins a little digging.

Before he can act, Jimmy, too, turns up dead. The police figure the case is closed (Jimmy's murder being dismissed as a jailhouse Indian-Hispanic conflict), but Nick feels obliged to keep it open himself.

The plot follows a fairly standard detective route through clues, complication and crisis--shot through with a romantic strand. Nick is ripe for a relationship, and Rosa, the elegant-in-jeans art conservator from Italy, fits the bill. They hit it off immediately, but, as she was one of the few people who knew about the gold before Father John's death, she also features in Nick's list of suspects.

For a first novel, the plot of The Gold of San Xavier progresses fairly smoothly--no brilliant moves, but no obvious slip-ups, either--aside from some too-long lumps of newspaper text apparently injected for exposition. Itule's style--not self-conscious one bit--and journalistic insight serve him well, as does his experience with research.

But, ohmigod, I'll bet he never reported much on romance.

Nick Genoa proves to be a credible central character. Thinking as a reporter would, "taking mental notes of his observations," he's smart and sympathetic (both to other characters and to the reader), and he reveals some journalistic tricks: Investigate from the outside in, for example; cover peripheral folks before the central ones.

The reader might, however, want to avert eyes from his awkwardly out-of-character-with-character romance. (it's love at first sight; what happened to his New York sophistication?) A more effective depiction of affection in The Gold of San Xavier is that which he develops for the mission itself.

The strongest element in this novel is its research. Itule predicates his gold-cache story on historical accounts of early Jesuits and Franciscans at "Bac" and the 1781 Quechan uprising against Spaniards at Yuma Crossing. He folds recent Southern Arizona controversies into the action (Mount Graham telescopes with the Vatican, the red squirrel and Apache sacred spaces). Most satisfying is Itule's rendering of the San Xavier interior itself. His precise description of restored mission features make you want to wander back and check them out--like the statue of St. Fidelis with blood gushing from his head. Or that of Lucy, forced into a brothel for being Christian, and then boiled, minus some body parts, in urine.

So, does the journalist successfully genre-jump to novelist? Yeah, generally, with more ease than you'd expect from interplanetary flight.

And it's worth noting that Itule made his own little fiction-follows-fact foray into San Xavier conservation: What Nick Genoa writes about for Smithsonian, Bruce Itule wrote for Arizona Highways.

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