Tour’s Books Blog

March 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Death Song by Michael McGarrity

Death Song, billed as a Kevin Kerney mystery, is set in Northern New Mexico – known to most mystery fans as Hillerman Territory.  Unlike Hillerman, McGarrity has always focused on the police procedural format combined with the travails of his central character, Kerney.  Comparisons with Hillerman are inevitable, not just because of the location, but because McGarrity began passing the torch of his key character to a younger investigator – Mescalero Apache Sergeant Clayton Istee.  In a previous book we learned that unbeknownst to Kerney till a few years ago, Istee was his son by an old sweetheart who hid the truth from both of them.  Now, we have young sergeant to Kerney’s retiring Chief, a close echo of Leaphorn-Chee.  Istee is also a more ‘traditional Apache’ like Jim Chee’s traditional Navajo juxtaposed to Leaphorn’s modern Navajo.  Unlike Hillerman, both characters are regular police, not tribal police (though Istee formerly was tribal police).  McGarrity’s straightforward prose is much better suited to the procedural genre.  With Hillerman’s more lush, atmospheric writing that works well with his complex character studies, mixed with myth and culture, the mystery is almost secondary to the overall story.

Death Song gets off to a roaring start with a brutal double murder.  A new Lincoln County deputy sheriff, Tim Riley, is shot in the face as he arrives home.  His wife, Denise, who is still in their old home up Santa Fe County is missing.  While the wife resides is outside Kerney’s jurisdiction, Denise is the youngest sister his long time friend and administrative assistant Helen Muiz.  When Tim can’t reach Denise by phone, he calls Helen and asks her to go over to the house and check on her.  When things don’t look right, Helen calls Kerney.  It’s Kerney and his detectives  first on the scene, initially as a favor, but then as lead detectives under the Sheriff’s department when her body is found locked in a horse trailer.  So Istee and Kerney, whose relationship is distant at best, are again brought into each other’s orbit.  Just to layer on the complications, Kerney’s wife Sara, a career military officer, is back from an Iraq tour with a Purple Heart, Silver Star, a promotion to full colonel – and a case of PTSD. Kerney is a month from retirement, and has no direct authority over either crime scene, but using politics eventually gets himself put in charge about half way through the book. 

Since Tim Riley had only been in Lincoln County for a week – hardly long enough to make any enemies – Istee is sent up to Santa Fe County where Riley had been a deputy in the Sheriff’s department. Grace, Istee’s wife, sees to it that he stays with the Kerney’s while there in hopes of getting her husband to accept his father.  McGarrity uses Istee as his lead character and Kerney, though still a central figure, is relegated to a lesser role.  The politics of cross jurisdictional police work are handled well.  It quickly becomes apparent that it was Denise and not Tim who was the main target.  The autopsy shows she was 3 months pregnant, and not by Tim who had a vasectomy.  The questions start mounting, all centered around Denise.  Who was her lover?  How did Denise send Helen letters from all over the world when she never has a passport?  What did Brian Riley, Tim’s son from his first marriage, do to get so much money during his brief stay with his father?  Who scrubbed their computer hard drives of all data to DoD standards?  And who had the skills to do some very sophisticated hacking to remove all phone and ISP records from the Riley’s accounts.  One by one, all the people who might have key information are murdered with the same brutal efficiency as the Riley’s.

McGarrity, an experienced deputy and investigator, is sure footed with the police work and the large cast of characters, but he leaves loose ends on the whole records hacking and the reason why two world class thieves ended up living in Northern New Mexico.  On many levels, this was a very satisfying mystery.  The fast pace never flags, the story is complex enough to engage the reader and keep them guessing.  The cops are believable, as is the political maneuvering by those in charge of the various departments.  The solution comes together from the clues and hard police work, including the frustration that key pieces are missing.  The one element missing here is atmosphere.  Yes, there’s the some of the tension of finding a cop killer, yet it lacks urgency, diluted by the complexity of the investigation and the sheer number of characters.  Even Kerney’s impending retirement doesn’t bring much to the table.  There are plenty of bodies and lots of clues, as usual for a police procedural, but no build up of pressure, no sense of precious time slipping away as the trail goes cold, no explosive frustration.

Istee grew as a character, but remains less fleshed out than Kerney.  More importantly, he didn’t command the stage set for him.  The interactions between Istee and Kerney were lamentably short and less than satisfactory, though some mutual understanding and rapport started.  McGarrity hasn’t the deft hand of Hillerman when it comes to weaving the Apache cultural elements of Istee’s character into the story line.  Much of the last 30 pages felt rushed, more like a synopsis than the complete story.  For example, Sara and her Iraq related issues were somehow better and the first meeting between the two complete families is relegated to a mere paragraph.  The last 3 pages had enough for several chapters on their own and both the characters and the story would have felt more complete had they been written that way.

With Kerney heading to London with Sara and their young son Patrick for her final posting at the embassy prior to her own retirement from the military, you’re left with a feeling the title, Death Song, has multiple meanings here. It’s more that the ‘ghost’ of Tim Riley troubling Istee, it’s Kerney’s swan song.  But McGarrity leaves the door open with Kerney planning on returning to his ranch in New Mexico several times a year.  I can feel a Joe Leaphorn – Jim Chee partnership potential dangling there.

My Grade: C+ to B-

Who would enjoy this book: Readers of C. J. Box, Steve Hamilton and J. A. Jance’s Joanna Brady mysteries.  My rating would PG-13.


1 Comment »

  1. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

    Comment by matt — March 20, 2009 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

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