Myth and Murder

This border-area police procedural enthralls, but errs by meandering into the supernatural

Part of the appeal of the police procedural is that it doesn't require the suspension of disbelief: However wild, freakish and terrifying, it teases you with the strangely thrilling notion that this could really happen, down the street or across town.

Arizona resident Jeffrey Mariotte's latest novel, Missing White Girl, takes us on a police-cruiser-speed journey through the intense four days following the kidnapping of a teenage girl. It starts out as a promising crime thriller but runs into an identity crisis when it makes a foray into the supernatural.

A teenager, Elayne Lippincott, has been kidnapped. The media swarm around Cochise County, utterly engrossed by the tale of the beautiful white girl and her wealthy family. Meanwhile, police officer Buck Shelton finds himself standing inside a small adobe house near Bisbee, surrounded by the dead bodies of a mixed-race mother, father and their two young sons. Missing from her room is their eldest daughter, Lulu Lavender, a college student, activist and blogger. Distracted by the Elayne Lippincott case, the local media ignore Lulu, who appears in staccato chapters, gagged and bound, being lugged around by her kidnapper, who repeatedly asks her one eerie question: "When is she coming?"

Buck's first logical stop is the neighbor's house, where he finds Oliver Bowles and his wife, Renee. Oliver was Lulu's teacher; it turns out the two were quite close. Oliver seems genuinely shocked at the news of Lulu's disappearance, but Buck can't help feeling like their connection is more than it seems. When he finds out that Oliver lost his previous job in San Diego for having an affair with a student, Buck's suspicion deepens.

In another part of town, we meet Barry, an aging Arizonan who just lost his meager job and gets turned down at the local Wal-Mart. With two years left on his mortgage and a hatred for Mexican immigrants brewing in his belly, he settles into a few beers at a bar and meets a man who promises to help him out. He's led to a house near the border, from which a man named Carl controls a small militia that takes patrolling the border into their own hands. Seduced by their apparent control and power, Barry becomes a murderer and vigilante before he can think twice about the consequences his newfound "patriotism" might have.

Finally, there's young Gabriel, who hears a "call" in Mexico and leaves his criminal job in Arizona to retrieve a white statue from deep in the Mexican forest. The statue, it turns out, is legend: Its possessor will reclaim parts of the United States in the name of Mexico. Turns out the "missing white girl" of Mariotte's narrative isn't Lippincott after all: It's this artifact. Lulu had been having dreams about the statue, which she referred to as the "white girl," and had been blogging about it, not realizing that her hints would drive someone to murder for more information. Then, suddenly, we're escorted into the 16th century, to hear the tale of the statue's origins.

There are a lot of narratives tangled up in this book. Many characters are barely given time to utter a word before they're yanked offstage. The history behind the statue is intriguing, but the 16th-century bits, which Mariotte calls "interludes," are far too disparate and brief to earn the reader's interest; instead, they serve as distractions from the main tale. This 16th-century mysticism is a complicated topic, and while Mariotte certainly knows his stuff, the reader is left wondering when (and why) we wandered out of the police novel and into a fantasy. There's potential in this idea, but it's so lightly treated that it comes across as an afterthought.

Still, Missing White Girl is frequently enthralling. Mariotte hits upon some fascinating topics, including those of immigration and the Border Patrol, Mexican and American patriotism, and the terrible things people will do when they feel maligned and desperate. He throws in just enough grit and gore to appease action junkies, but doesn't use it as an easy selling point to the Saw crowd.

But his true masterpiece is Buck Shelton. In his hero, he's crafted one of the finest new sleuths in fiction: a very real man who finds solace in the challenges of his job when things get rough at home, who isn't so hardened that a dead family of four can still shake him to the core--and who isn't afraid to make solving a crime a little bit personal. It would be a pleasure to see Buck again.

Ultimately, Missing White Girl is just a touch too ambitious. But Mariotte's already got more than 25 novels under his belt, so we can thankfully expect more from this seasoned writer. And if we're lucky, he'll bring along Lt. Shelton.