Trouble in Tucson

Clichés and dropped threads aside, Tucson's Clark Lohr turns in a promising debut mystery

Clark Lohr's debut novel, Devil's Kitchen, is a fast-paced, Southwestern-flavored mystery/noir that occasionally offers some fresh and interesting angles to the genre. However, it never carries these angles far enough to make the book feel wholly original, and Lohr can't quite transcend the clichés inherent to mystery novels.

Devil's Kitchen tells a story of conspiracies and twists and turns. At its core, it follows Pima County Sheriff's Det. Manny Aguilar through a rough and violent couple of months, as a murder investigation involving a head found in a landfill explodes into a web of lies, politics, drugs and deceit that threatens his life, as well as the lives of those he cares about.

Along for the ride is Aguilar's girlfriend, Reina; her boss, Jeff Goldman, an opinionated defense attorney who works with the dregs of society; a Cherokee private investigator named Johnny Oaks; and a colorful cast of addicts, dealers, politicians and others. If some of this sounds familiar ... well, that's because it is, with a number of characters feeling like genre staples and Tony Hillerman leftovers.

The novel works best when Lohr probes ideas and topics outside of the typical purview of the mystery novel. At play—in small portions—throughout the book are commentaries on larger issues as varied as water and land development in the Southwest, racial inequality and war. For example, when Manny queries Reina as to what she knows about a nefarious Arizona land-developer named Dollanger, what follows is an interesting and unobtrusive conversation about water issues and ecology. Reina tells Manny:

The water table around Tucson was 20 feet in the 1800s. It's 250 feet now, or more, depending on location. Rivers and riparian areas stolen. Gone, in one lifetime. The Santa Cruz River flowed right through Tucson, Manny. The natives used it for a thousand years and never used it up. That river is sand now. And the forests around it? Poof. The Tohono O'odham and the Mexicans farmed and ranched for hundreds of years, but now we are all seeing Arizona broken in our laps.

The voice in this section is engaging and believable, and the use of local ecology is a far- better and more-connective locator than any amount of street or restaurant name-dropping could ever be. The way in which these issues are raised and expressed feels impassioned on the part of the speakers, and thus the author, rather than simply used for convenient local color. Sadly, this unique strategy is not used in a way that complements the whole novel.

When Dollanger finally enters the novel in the flesh—after being built up and talked about for 200 pages—he's given two lines, and then the novel ends with exposition about his situation, which is terribly anticlimactic and a total letdown. It's as if once the action of the novel was finished, the author forgot that the readers would care about the more-subtle tensions at work, so he decided just to end the novel and get out as quickly as possible—leaving the reader with a bitter taste in his or her mouth.

There are other instances in which interesting threads are picked up, briefly pulled and then dropped. For example, in a brief scene with his brother, Manny considers his father's plight as a soldier, and at the same time subtly comments on race and nationality:

Mexican Americans received more Medals of Honor in World War II, per capita, than any other ethnic group. Jesus Aguilar didn't get one of those in Korea, but he got two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star for valor, and, Manny suspected, a lot of bad memories about a lot of dead friends. ... Manny had never seen his father cry until they sent Luis' body home from Iraq.

The death of Manny's brother Luis in Iraq is only briefly touched upon. These topics could deepen the reader's understanding of Manny's character, his troubles and motivations, but they are simply left hanging.

It's clear that Clark Lohr is interested in creating more-complex and more-realistic characters than your typical mystery author, and while he is perhaps not yet fully utilizing all of his tools, Devil's Kitchen showcases his strengths—strengths the author will hopefully focus on and expand on in future novels.