Once More, With Feeling

The latest 'Posadas County' mystery lacks an emotional hook

Fans of mystery novelist Steven F. Havill might feel a little nervous when reading about someone driving through fictional Posadas County, N.M.: In each of the 14 books Havill has set in the area, someone has died a miserable death. Fortunately, he's created a heroic band of police officers to compensate.

After nine books centered on undersheriff Bill Gastner, Havill finally coronated Estelle Reyes-Guzman as his star mystery solver in 2002's Scavengers. With Final Payment, his latest installment, Estelle makes it to her fifth book in the mystery series. Whether she survives it is another question entirely.

Estelle's got enough going on as she helps prepare the county for a 100-mile bike race through its lofty mesas and rocky desert. In between rescuing cyclists in training who are careening off cliffs and nervously waiting for her 7-year-old son's piano recital, she receives a call from a colleague with ominous news: Three people, possibly a mother, father and son, have been shot and left dead next to a small, remote airstrip.

Lugging along the wide-eyed, portly county manager, Leona, Estelle arrives on the scene. The three victims have been shot, expertly, cleanly--execution-style. They're not Americans, but they're not migrants, either, as their clothes are expensive and their hands soft. As the police scan the scene, they realize that the killer had quite literally come out of thin air: He flew in with his victims on a small airplane, forced them out, shot them and then departed.

Estelle goes hunting for a killer. Things begin to come together: A local pilot reports that his plane has been used without his permission; someone's stolen gas from tanks at a local school; a neighborhood boy becomes a suspect once Estelle spots one of his paintings, which shows a small, crop-dusting plane. As she drives over mesas, visits with the coroner and nervously helps her precocious son prepare for his performance, she hardly realizes how close she is to the killer himself--until she's far too close for comfort.

When it comes to detailing the inner workings of a small-town police department, Havill is an expert. Posadas County is vast, but everyone knows everyone. Havill's intimate knowledge of the landscape is no surprise: He lives in the miniature New Mexico town of Raton. Throughout the 14 novels in the series, Posadas has become a character in its own right, and the challenges facing its law-enforcement officials are unique: They're up against the sheer vastness of the wilderness, a populace that knows everything about each of them, and the ease with which a criminal on the lam could skip across the border to Mexico.

Unfortunately, Havill does tend to get mired in details. There are just too many names in this book, especially for first-time visitors to his lengthy series. Here, many of the minor characters disappear without having served any real purpose. Someone is always calling someone to do something, and usually prefaces the conversation with a set of "three-oh-eights" or "nine-four-niners." While Havill's appreciation of procedure is respectable, he could stand to avoid the bureaucracy of police work.

It's a good thing we have Estelle Reyes-Guzman at the center. She is gritty, tough and immensely appealing. While she's always thinking of her sons and husband, her passion for her work is the true force in her life, keeping her wide awake in the middle of the night. It's a shame that in this particular book, we don't learn more about her--even those who have followed her since 2002 will finish Final Payment wanting to know more about the woman behind the badge.

And the book's central flaw is this: There is little emotion to grasp. While Havill crafts a complex, grisly mystery, the book ultimately is about nothing but Estelle doing her job. Had he raised the stakes a bit, or made the crime and its ramifications a little more personal for her, the book wouldn't have seemed a touch boring. In short, the stakes are too low. And while the climax itself builds cleanly and engagingly, the end result is that Final Payment becomes just another installment in a series, and not a satisfying read on its own.

It's hard to make an undersheriff, much less the general reading public, care much about a crime without a personal connection. Still, whatever the shortcomings of this particular installment, Estelle Reyes-Guzman is a worthy heroine. Havill would do well to bring her back for a sixth adventure--but this time, with feeling.

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