She Rides Again

Sinclair Browning brings back Trade Ellis for another mystery in the desert.

Traggedy Ann is the fifth in Sinclair Browning's Trade Ellis series, all set in Southern Arizona. Those familiar with earlier efforts will already know that along with a good mystery yarn, Browning gives us ranch lore, outdoor wisdom, Southern Arizona color and lots of locally recognizable vignettes.

Like the others in the set, Traggedy Ann branches out into different ground, this time centering around a kinky sex cult. Her client is an artist who paints wounded dolls and whose sister, a local TV anchor, is missing. Browning weaves murder, sleaze, psychosis, double-dealing, corrupt cops and orgies expertly into one large Gordian knot and unties it with unerring skill.

Those not familiar with the series should know that the principal character is single--part Apache, part Scot--who raises Brahmin cattle on the Vaca Grande Ranch and doubles as a private investigator in a town that is clearly Catalina. She's a tough broad with a soft center. If they ever made a movie about her, Barbara Stanwyck would've been perfect.

There are other recurring characters in the series, some totally fictional and others based in reality. One of the latter is Petunia the Pig, whose real-life model can be met at Clues Unlimited at select times--this might tend to make some of us locals a tad nervous.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra cello section will probably not be happy with the fictional victim, who was leading a secret life involved with sex cult weirdos and who just might have gotten her killed for reasons that gradually unwind as Browning introduces us to the other characters. Her neighbors, her family and her dogs are recurring, as is her almost boyfriend, a local prosecutor. Along with them, we meet a host of unsavory folks, several of whom are part of the surprises and plot turns that always make a good mystery novel.

The one group-sex scene part of the novel is hardly there to titillate; it's a necessary part of the plot. In fact, it gives voyeurism a bad name, as it is sordid and tawdry, so much so that Trade feels the need to head back to the reservation and go through an Apache cleansing ceremony after having secretly witnessed it.

For those steady readers concerned over Trade's own sex life, after four volumes of divorced celibacy, she finally scores. The big question is: Since she's with a guy she really likes and who really likes her, how come nothing ever develops after that one great night? They're both single and available, but Trade holds back, exposing a deeper side it would take future volumes to fully understand.

Browning recounts a tragic incident she was part of in describing the discovery of a downed power pole near Oracle that caused the death of two mountain lions, four head of cattle and a silver fox. Its placement hardly ripples the story line, and its fresh outdoor view contrasts mightily with the sleaze the bulk of her other characters are part of. But hey, it's a mystery novel--it's supposed to have bad people in it.

Traggedy Ann goes a little deeper than prior Trade Ellis books, and the plot is more complex. Like in any good series, we learn a little more about the principal character each time. And this one makes us want to learn more.

Hopefully, there'll be more. Like Conan Doyle with Sherlock, series characters can sometimes wear the writer out. Worse, the recent flooding in Catalina all but destroyed the Browning home: The real Vaca Grande is no more. Only time will tell if she can bring herself to writing about her dirty shirt cowgirl again.

In the meantime, there's Traggedy Ann for all who've found Trade Ellis already, and the first four--The Last Song Dogs, The Sporting Club, Rode Hard, Put Away Dead and Crack Shot for those who haven't.

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