ONE OF THE most appealing aspects of this new book by local writer Sinclair Browning is that by the end, her central character is suitably convincing that you feel you, too, could pull a Laz-Z-Boy up to the fire and wash down a package of Twinkies with a glass of merlot...and enjoy it.
The Sporting Club is Browning's second mystery. In The Last Song Dogs, published last year, Twinkie-scarfing private investigator Trade Ellis was hired by a couple of her former high-school classmates because, leading up to their 25th reunion, someone was killing off the old Javelina High School cheerleaders (admittedly, the unrealized ambition of many). Set in and around Tucson, in all it was a tantalizing mystery as well as a satisfying and gently sadistic post-high-school experience.
This time, Trade's client is a successful romance novelist plagued by recurring dreams of seemingly repressed childhood memories. These memories involve picnics with family and friends, a body in a box, and flashes of the beating to death of a black man. Thirty years have passed, and these unwelcome tidings, which include the current (fictional) Mayor of Tucson, aren't jogging anyone else's family memories.
That, not to mention the dubious imagination of a woman who wears alabaster cowboy boots and creates characters based on the attributes of Fabio, means Trade has her work cut out for her.
The Sporting Club's strengths lie in Browning's ability to canvass character and colorful settings. Our part-Apache, forty-something heroine is a divorced English-lit major who runs the family ranch just north of Tucson. She has an ironic wit, a healthy self-effacing attitude, and a good seat in the saddle. She also has a 3/4-ton pickup named Priscilla, good friends, a potty-trained pig, and a yen for cholesterol.
Author Browning's personal experience serves her writing well. A self-described "dirty-shirt" cowgirl familiar with the Sonoran desert, Browning shoots her text with authenticity from her working ranch upbringing: Wanna win a team penning event? Don't draw the first run; the cattle are squirrely till they've been rounded up by another couple of teams. Wanna appreciate the delicate qualities of beefy mountain oysters? Drench 'em in cocktail sauce. Wanna avoid attack by a Doberman on guard (who wouldn't)? Seduce it; and don't look it in the eye.
Browning's settings -- panoramically drawn and explicitly accurate -- will certainly meet the greedy needs of regionally challenged readers. But they provide a little interactive reading for us locals, as well. Didn't a Kingsolver character also hang out where the romance writer rents her casita on the west side? There's a tempting, desert-developer alliteration in potential bad guy Dan Daglio's name. We're sure we've sat at the same El Charro table where Trade meets a county attorney; and (does this critic pass the test?), that is our favorite, free weekly rag Trade picks up to read over lunch.
The Sporting Club is set in November, and Browning excels in evoking desert ambiance: morning chill, the gradual warming as the sun rises; the casual animal life. She's specific with valley and hill terrain, informative but not pedantic about horse and cattle behavior.
Likewise, her cultural references ring true. They're neither invented nor cloyingly ethnic. Trade's medicine-woman grandmother lives in a government-issue, slump block rez house in San Carlos, but she has a wall of books; her cousin Bea is a television news anchor. The foreman's family is Spanglish-speaking Mexican-American, a detail Browning weaves in unobtrusively, shows enough respect for her audience not to translate every phrase.
As with many sophomore efforts, however, The Sporting Club falls short of its predecessor. This one's a little less spirited out of the chute, and unfortunately, considerably more predictable once it starts kicking up its heels. Trade's job in The Last Song Dogs involved finding a killer from a collection of suspects, leaving the reader in suspense until the end. Her challenge in The Sporting Club lies in testing the credibility of repressed memory and the success of unearthing old clues. The reader longs for more mystery in the mystery -- more red herrings and suspicious characters. Trade does do the dumb things P.I.'s are wont to do, like leave herself vulnerable to attack -- and these antics will keep you turning pages toward the end -- but even there the story takes a slightly implausible twist.
Browning is to be commended for her smart writing, lively voice, rich setting, and compelling heroine. With her penchant for ordering her chocolate pie before the meal, and her refreshing ability to live a seemingly full life without panting after romance, Ellis is like a friend you want to stay in touch with. Read 'em both, send copies to good friends gone away, and look forward to Browning's next book. Its seeds have already been planted.