Deadly Developments

Elizabeth Gunn and her Tucsonan detective, Sarah Burke, are back on the case

After composing seven Jake Hines mysteries set in Minnesota, her former home, novelist Elizabeth Gunn got herself a new heroine in her current hometown of Tucson: hard-line homicide detective Sarah Burke.

Burke came onto the scene in last year's Cool in Tucson; she forges ahead in Gunn's latest police procedural, New River Blues. And so does Gunn: The author hit her stride in the middle of the Jake Hines series, and she's shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, it's safe to say she's better than ever in the efficient, exciting New River Blues.

As usual with Gunn, the action begins right away. In the first chapter, we're invited to a boozy, high-society party at a tony home in El Encanto Estates. A young ex-con named Pauly, new to Tucson and working informally for a small catering company, is surprised to find himself seduced by the ebullient hostess. The two go to bed, but do not make it to the next morning, as someone shoots them both in the middle of the night. When the case is turned over to Sarah Burke, she discovers that the deceased hostess, Eloise Henderson, is a member of the ultra-rich Della Maggio family—and that her developer husband, Roger, might have been having some money trouble.

In a parallel narrative, we learn that another young ex-con working for the catering company, Nico, has awakened the day after the murder with a suspicion that he was perhaps involved in the killing of Pauly, his best friend. Too hungover to remember anything clearly, he makes a dash for safety, from the cops and from the sinister crowd that got him involved in the shady "catering" business in the first place. Meanwhile, Sarah begins her investigation of Roger Henderson, who proves to be brusque, blustery and more than a little defensive. A developer who builds tract housing in the desert, he's been squeezed by the subprime bust; to make matters worse, it seems his wife had been cheating on him for some time.

Those picking up from the last book will be pleased to find that Sarah is in a steady relationship with fellow officer Will Dietz. She's smitten with him and with her work, but she's having a bit of a rough go at home otherwise: Her drug-addicted sister, Janine, is AWOL, and Janine's pre-teen daughter, Denny, is living with Sarah in a state of permanent anxiety about her missing mother. And as the Henderson murder mystery grows more complex, Sarah finds herself coming home to Denny and the rest of her personal life later and later each night.

Gunn is getting better and better. She's always had the police-procedural basics down; she clearly loves the details of investigative work and manages to thrill detective wannabes with plenty of inside-the-department scenes, complete with hard-line interrogations, roving data-collection geeks and piled-up paperwork. But she never lets the seriousness overwhelm the general lightness of her tale; the book is often downright hilarious. It's the supporting cast of officers that makes New River Blues especially fun: There's the blustering sergeant Delaney, who manages his staff with a manic energy; the car-obsessed Cifuentes, who had something of a dalliance with Eloise Henderson himself; and the attractive Menendez, so good-looking and flirtatious that Sarah worries he'll seduce a key figure in the investigation.

Several other side characters flit in and out of the book. There's the young actress Felicity, desperate to become a star and willing to do anything—even conceal a crime—to make enough money to move to Los Angeles; Patricia Henderson, Eloise's daughter, hateful of the cops at first but ultimately pleased to have them on her side; and frustrated caterer Zack, kicked out of the military after going haywire in Iraq and ready to take revenge on the "civilians" that he detests just as much as the "ragheads" he fought in the Gulf. Each character is finely crafted and full of surprises; Gunn seems to have a good time making them more complex than they initially seem. This can occasionally backfire, though: Here and there, she jumps a little too quickly among perspectives, and occasionally, the character details can seem unnecessarily tangential.

But this is just a minor flaw in an otherwise gleaming effort. New River Blues is perfect for first-time Gunn readers and will more than satisfy those who have been with the author since her Hines days. Sarah Burke and her motley crew of officers can't come back soon enough; fortunately, given Gunn's quick pace and obvious enthusiasm, it's unlikely she'll keep us waiting for long.

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