Chiricahua Mystery

Frankie MacFarlane is on the case--and on the suspect list--in 'Hoodoo'

What do you get when you mix a retired headmistress who birds, an undergrad geek with Asperger's, a future ethno botanist Apache who beads, and a pop-culture-smart Mexican American recovering from mononucleosis--all on a mountain with an eyeless dead guy?

A geology-class field trip with a whole new assignment. Susan Cummins Miller's erudite and entertaining fourth Frankie MacFarlane mystery, Hoodoo, ropes some unlikely investigators into a series of murders in southeastern Arizona.

Miller, a Tucsonan and former U.S. Geological Survey field geologist who also taught geology and oceanography before turning to writing, brings ready-made investigative credentials to her hero, Francesca MacFarlane. Dr. MacFarlane ("Call me 'Frankie'" signals a change in relationship) teaches beginning geology at Foothills Community College in Tucson. The previous books in the series had MacFarlane courting danger in Pair-A-Dice, Nev.; northern Sonora and southeastern Arizona; and the Mojave Desert.

Hoodoo opens at Massai Point in the Chiricahua Mountains. MacFarlane has invited four students from her geology of Arizona class to accompany her and her lifelong friend, Apache Joaquin Black, to scout for future field trips in the area. She plans to show them "the young layers of rhyolitic ash-flow tuff, formed from compacted fragments of volcanic ash, glass and rock that had exploded out of the Turkey Creek caldera nearly 27 million years ago." Instead, she ends up showing them contemporary crime.

Frankie and Joaquin alert park rangers to the body; they bring in the sheriff, and he immediately places them on his list of murder suspects. That Joaquin had been the first to respond to a fatal trailer fire a few days before increases the law's suspicions. And when, not 24 hours later, Frankie is the last person to see a third murdered person alive, it's clear she won't be leaving this jurisdiction and heading back to Tucson anytime soon.

With their field trip somewhat derailed, but no other pressing plans for the weekend, Frankie's students choose to stay on with her in the Chiricahuas. Bunking at Joaquin's family's ranch, they plan to complete some geology reports, but they wind up doing group work to exonerate MacFarlane and Joaquin.

Hoodoo's setting is informed by Miller's background. She has the landscape play a teaching role in the book. The "hoodoos" of the title are the volcanic monoliths of the Chiricahuas. That the name also suggests "voodoo" and attendant bad luck makes a nice tie with a surprise Third World connection.

Frankie and her students have wandered into a conflict between ranchers and mining interests--complicated by environmentalists--that has resonance in the Chiricahuas' historic competition for water rights. (One interesting piece of geological history worth noting: Tectonic plates and fossils in the area indicate it was once connected to the Gulf of Mexico. As one anti-immigrant cowboy triumphantly points out, "this was once beach-front property," and Mexico was underwater.)

Miller is able to weave political history and commentary into the text with a discussion of place names. At one point, sitting and waiting to be interviewed, Frankie and Joaquin compare language and place names. English's brief (and neutral) "Apache Pass" becomes Apaches' descriptive (and freighted) "Place-Where-Lieutenant-Bascom- promised-a-parley- then-accused-Cochise-of-kidnapping- a-white-child-and- murdered-Cochise's-relatives."

Miller delineates Frankie's students with affection, and gives them real roles in solving the mystery. Although it's Frankie's scientific approach that puts the clues together, it's her students' individual strengths that dig up the clues. When the 60-something headmistress finally peels her birdwatcher's field glasses away from her face, she's surprisingly adept at chatting up the locals to glean gossip. Likewise, although the Asperger's kid experiences not a whit of sympathy for a family whose son is missing, he proves a whiz at tracking down Internet information.

Despite the remarkable number of folks who die over a single weekend, Hoodoo is not high-action mystery--which is probably not Miller's objective anyway. However, some of the fictional elements are not entirely convincing. You never believe, for example, that Frankie is seriously suspected of committing any murders, and the final dispatching of life is just a little karmic and far-fetched.

Nonetheless, Hoodoo is a comfortably informative narrative, rendered in capable, unselfconscious prose, that features characters you can care about in a wild setting of which many of us are fond--and it's worth the read.

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