Arizona has its share of good places to set murder mysteries—and its share of murder-mystery writers. Tucson magazine writer Matthew Marine (a veteran of Arizona Highways) has just joined the fraternity with his Sedona-set Devil's Moon.
The book opens with pretty, young, dark-haired Amanda Pearce stumbling barefoot, beaten and terrified through the high desert. It's night; and she's identified the lights of Sedona in the distance. The howl of one and then a chorus of coyotes comforts her. However, when the coyotes go silent, and a familiar stink wafts her direction, Amanda—along with the reader—knows that she won't be making it home to the land of crystals and aura-readings.
In the next chapter, set a few weeks later, we meet Stuart Ransom, a Phoenix FBI agent who's gone north and conned his way into investigating Amanda Pearce's gruesome murder and the apparent suicide of her alleged murderer, Sedona police officer Craig Adams. The local police chief has just about closed the case, but Adams' sister, Laura—as persuasive as she is beautiful—has talked Ransom into challenging the chief's conclusions. Her thoughtful, responsible brother, she contends, wouldn't have it in him to smash to pulp a girl's body, cut off her fingers, carve an apology into her forehead, clip off a chunk of her hair and decapitate her; he was clearly framed and murdered. Ransom is inclined to believe Laura. To him, this smacks of a sex-related serial killing. That Laura's brother was not sexually attracted to women strengthens the argument.
The questions then become: Who is the killer? And why frame Adams?
As you'd expect, jurisdictional and territorial conflicts are in play from the outset. The local police don't want the feds mucking up their clean case, and the town—which turned its back on Adams' family—wants Ransom out of there as well. And nobody knows that he's on a rogue mission; his boss thinks he's working a Las Vegas mob case. But Ransom begins to find evidence of various attractive young women with long, dark hair gone missing in Arizona, and his investigation turns into a hunt for a practiced killer.
To Ransom's professional issues, add his personal ones: He's struggling with anger and guilt over the death of his young son two years earlier, and his inability to relate to his remaining child, 18-year-old Morgan. Morgan, however, hasn't given up on her dad. A lovely young woman with long, dark hair, she shows up in Sedona to see him. Yeah, you know where that's going.
Although this is Marine's first novel, you can see writing experience and the influence of the writers' community. (He thanks Gecko Gals Ink.) The occasional cliché aside—some editor should've exterminated that "rat from a sinking ship"—his style is serviceable and smooth. The story is neatly plotted and abides by the conventions of mystery fiction. Agent Ransom is a sympathetically flawed and conflicted main character, even if his love interest is a mite predictable.
Marine builds suspense successfully, cutting between the points of view; he also effectively unfolds the mystery. His Arizona Highways experience kicked in; as a sometimes-Flagstaff denizen, I appreciated the description and potential threat of his setting.
What is not conventional—perhaps he wants it to become his signature—is Marine's inclusion of a kind of New Age-y element. Agent Ransom is inexplicably compelled to lie to his superiors and engage in a maverick investigation for a person he's never met. He begins, uncharacteristically, to listen to his intuition. Most out of character for an FBI guy, he begins to hang out with a woman who talks to angels. Laura communicates with the angel Gabriel, who in his turn seems to hang out just above someone else's head.
There's an old mystery-writers' rule that forbids solving crimes supernaturally. Marine doesn't exactly break the rule—our detective applies his natural powers of deduction—but the angel aspect could stretch credibility. The line is decidedly blurred between the quick and the dead in Devil's Moon. I, for one, get twitchy and start scribbling in margins when a serious character announces that your soul decides before your birth "which lessons you would learn during this lifetime."
Devil's Moon concludes satisfactorily, but it leaves one loose thread. Odds are that Matthew Marine has more in store for Agent Stuart Ransom. I'd welcome another chapter, but with a little more deduction and a little less divinity.