Michael Norman,
Skeleton Picnic
(Poisoned Pen Press, 2012)

When a pair of pot hunters -- that's clay antiquities found in the southwest desert, not drugs -- goes missing while out searching for pots, a Bureau of Land Management ranger J.D. Books is assigned to the case. The couple collected Native American antiquities, and their collection has disappeared along with them; someone burglarized their house and took everything.

The case unfolds one clue at a time: the missing couple's truck and trailer are found and the physical evidence suggests that a group of assailants overpowered them and took them, an Indian kid is caught trying to pawn a couple of the missing pieces....

Books and a young deputy sheriff named Beth Tanner try to solve the mystery, and before long find their own lives in jeopardy.

Michael Norman's Skeleton Picnic is assured and confidently done, moving from clue to clue as it is supposed to, with each turned up clue serving to deepen the mystery. Norman's fans -- his earlier book The Commission was named one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of 2007 -- will find this one satisfying, as I did, but they might, as I did, have a couple of quibbles. For one, the pace is slow. Norman, in trying for verisimilitude, includes long conversations about who has jurisdiction over the case, long talks between Books and Tanner about clues, and other scenes that could have been trimmed to speed up the action. He also is not always the most graceful writer. Consider this piece of description:

A moment later, a badly shaken Books returned to Benaly's room, his features a mask of sad resignation and dogged resolve to see the interrogation through regardless.

Here Norman is telling us what we should be seeing and feeling instead of making us see and feel it. Every writer has the occasional clunky passage, but when these passages become frequent, then a little revision is in order.

His dialogue can also be awkward:

"All to no avail, I suppose," said Books. "I think Becky has represented Benaly in the past during some of his juvenile court cases."

"If there's a history, that might explain their insistence on Becky representing him again," said Sutter. "In any event, Benaly and his mother reiterated their desire for Becky to defend the boy and the court went along."

All to no avail? Reiterated their desire? When have people actually spoken like that. I am a grown man who has spoken to a lot of people under a lot of circumstances and, in fact, have been accused of speaking too formally, but I have never heard anyone declare that she wanted to reiterate her desire, only to be told it was all to no avail.

But, balance the strengths against the weaknesses and you might find Skeleton Picnic worth a few hours of your time.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 July 2012

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