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Lovin' Kansas 

J.M. Hayes' latest is a light, fun little book-- but why won't he write about Tucson again?

About 15 years ago, transplanted Tucsonan J.M. (Mike) Hayes was toiling away for the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department and dreaming about writing a book. Well, darned if he didn't write that book, and double darned if it wasn't really good. That book turned out to be The Grey Pilgrim, an engrossing thriller set in Tucson during World War II and involving, among other things, a Papago (now Tohono O'odham) tribal leader who refuses to be drafted into the U.S. Army.

Pilgrim created quite a buzz and received widespread critical praise for its atmosphere and setting, as well as Hayes' attention to detail. Many Tucsonans looked forward to the follow-up to his initial effort, probably expecting another historical, Tucson-based tale. However, when that next book finally arrived, Hayes had taken a careening 90-degree turn, ending up with a modern-day tale of a middle-aged sheriff in Benteen County, Kansas, and his way-off-beat half-brother who is known as Mad Dog.

Because of the brother's nickname, Sheriff English is referred to as Englishman, completing the pairing in the old saying about the only two creatures that are outside on a brutally hot day. The two share a bloodline and a brothers' bond, but they are constantly getting in each other's way.

Englishman is an elected lawman and must therefore deal with the mundane and the maniacal with almost equal intensity, lest some perceived slight be remembered at the ballot box come next election. Mad Dog is a wanderer, a seeker of truth, and mostly an Indian wannabe. He believes that he's some kinda fraction Cherokee and that he has latent mystical powers--if only he can find a real Indian to help him bring them out.

The two men live in Buffalo Springs, Kan., a quirky little dying town at the intersection of Nowhere and Never Was. As in such towns, crimes occur, sometimes for the craziest reasons, and it's the Englishman's job to keep the peace and catch the bad guys.

In Plains Crazy, Hayes returns to Kansas for his third installment of the Mad Dog and Englishman saga. It's just another normal day in Buffalo Springs, except that just before sunrise, a member of a PBS documentary crew that has been filming in the area is shot in the back with an arrow. Meanwhile, Englishman is being informed by his longtime wife, Judy, that in just a few hours, she is going to Paris, with or without him, and that if he chooses the latter, she just might not come back. And if that's not enough to worry about, Englishman quickly learns that Mad Dog, who had been seen jogging past the scene of the crime, looks good for the murder.

Then the bombs start going off, in public buildings and on the street. The townspeople--who are a mixture of a Grant Woods painting and characters from the second Bob Newhart series (the one in which he was a New England innkeeper and had for neighbors Larry, his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl)--are shaken by the bombs and somehow come to the collective mindset that they are being attacked by al-Qaeda.

They try to contact the Department of Homeland Security and are taken about as seriously as one might expect. In fact, Englishman can't even get state authorities to believe him. (A call to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is rebuffed as a clumsy attempt at a practical joke.)

As the day progresses, the bombs keep going off, and Mad Dog finds himself face-to-face with his long-lost love, who broke his heart back in high school and then abruptly left town. She's in town with her adult son, who may or may not be Mad Dog's child, and that man may or may not be behind the bombings.

Somehow, all of the main characters are drawn out of Buffalo Springs and end up at the international airport in Wichita, where the mystery is unraveled and justice is somewhat served.

At just more than a couple hundred pages, Plains Crazy is pretty lightweight, both in volume and impact. It's the kind of book that's perfect for an airplane trip, one that can be polished off during a cross-country flight and looked back upon fondly, if without a whole lot of gravity. The characters are likable and the mystery, in retrospect, makes sense.

In Spanish, they say la sangre jala ("blood pulls"). Obviously, the land pulls just as hard. Hayes has a real feel for his native Kansas and his love for the flat, barren place really comes through in his writing. I just wish that whatever affection he feels for his adopted home would spur him to write another book set in Tucson.

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