Rocky Roads

Susan Cummins Miller leaves readers wanting more of Frankie MacFarlane

Massive dissertations, jockeying for tenure-track jobs, heaps of debt--bet all you grad students out there think getting a doctoral degree couldn't get any harder. Oh yeah? Frankie MacFarlane, the heroine of Susan Cummins Miller's new mystery novel, Quarry, would beg to differ.

Try getting your doctorate--in geology, no less--as your friends and colleagues are being attacked and murdered. Try finding out that your ex-fiancé has been plagiarizing your work, and then discover that he's disappeared and might be dead. And then you still have to be able to tell creosote from andesite from basalt.

We meet Frankie on the eve of her dissertation defense. She's driven to Del Rio, Calif., from Tucson, where she's planning to work once she's finally a doctor. Unfortunately, her first stop is at a police station: She's been asked to help identify the remains of her former fiancé, Geoff Travers, but learns during her visit that he could still be alive. Meanwhile, in interceding chapters, we meet the struggling student Dora Simpson, who's been abducted by a mysterious man named Jed during her work on a fossil quarry. Jed has left her bound and drifting in and out of consciousness, without her necessary diabetes medicine.

That night, Frankie's friend and advisor, Sarah, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run. The attacker leaves behind cryptic Shakespearean quotes, which become as crucial to the investigation as a bloodied car bumper. He or she persists in attacking members of the department, all Frankie's colleagues. As geologists drop, and Dora is noticed as missing, Frankie and her friends (with the long-distance help of her investigator-boyfriend Philo) head to the Cady Mountains to save Dora and track the killer. What they find there shocks even Frankie--which takes a lot. Oh, then there's that little matter of her dissertation defense.

Frankie stars in a series of mystery novels; the previous installments were Death Assemblage and Detachment Fault. She is an engaging heroine, equal parts bold and considerate, spontaneous and smart. Just when she's too brash, she reveals an enviable patience; just when she's too hardy, she shows an appealing soft side. It would seem that practicing geology makes you distinctly suited for tracking killers: Miller's rugged, adventuresome scientists could certainly whop the history department any time. Unfortunately, the amount of time geologists spend alone in remote desert canyons also makes them more vulnerable to homicidal maniacs who want to shackle them to the ground and leave them for dead.

Actually, the book is strongest when Miller brings readers into the desert and just has the geologists doing their scientific thing. She knows the scene: Miller worked in the field with the U.S. Geological Survey and taught geology and oceanography before turning to writing. She is clearly most comfortable when describing the outdoors and its rocky abundance; she peppers the narrative with rich descriptions of granite hills, alluvial fans and wind "howling in the canyons, eddying in the quarry." It seems her scientific background helps the writing itself: Her prose is methodical and as polished as a rock through a tumbler.

Unfortunately, this means that when Miller introduces the likes of Shakespearean quotes--as headers for her chapters and as part of the plot itself--it seems forced and unnatural. Shakespeare is out of place in the world of work boots, pickup trucks and dust-covered rocks. She should stick with the rough-and-tumble and avoid the literary grandiose.

While the Shakespeare seems out of place, it does emerge as an intriguing plot strand: Clues are hidden within the poetic lines. But unfortunately, this theme isn't developed enough to be wholly satisfying. By the end of the book, it's more of an afterthought, making the whole effort seem even more forced. Unfortunately, a few other potentially interesting plot strands also vanish prematurely: The book's most captivating character is the creepy killer who reveals his secrets in a haunting diary. Its contents are so unsettling that we naturally want to know more, but Miller doesn't reveal enough. And Frankie's sweet romance with the far-away Philo could use another scene or two. Just as we're getting to know about him, he is obscured by mystery-novel clichés, like Leonard La Joie, the hard-line investigator, and Rudy Rudinsky, Frankie's nemesis.

Basically, Quarry either needs to be longer or a bit denser. Just as these plot strands are about to get interesting, they disappear like filmy threads. The climax plods in too predictably and quickly; Miller could have used a surprise villain or a last-minute curveball. But her particular expertise as a scientist makes Quarry an engaging read. One wishes it lingered a bit longer; but then again, based on Frankie MacFarlane's incredible string of bad luck, one presumes this isn't the last we'll see of her.

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