|I enjoyed JoAnna Senger's first 'dark murder mystery' a great deal, not only because it didn't follow the standard rules but certainly in large part because of that. I enjoyed her second too, for many of the same reasons, but it plays its cards a little more conventionally than the first and so I found that I didn't enjoy it quite as much.
Senger doesn't write traditional mysteries. Her debut novel, 'Betrayal, Betrothal, and Blood', (click here for the review) was above all a character study, in which we observe the writer observing her characters observing other characters. That's an intriguing concept, if not a traditional one. There is a mystery at the heart of its story, a set of obscure murders that are investigated by some of the characters and which are solved in the end, if not in a traditional way.
Now she's back with book two, 'Reservation Ravaged', which isn't particularly traditional either, not even in being a sequel. However, it is a little more traditional than its predecessor, as we do at least spend the majority of the book following a single detective as she investigates a single crime, yet another set of murders. Where things depart from the norm are in the way she does this, how the mysteries in the book are solved and, once again, in the overarching feel of what Senger's trying to do with her writing.
That detective is Hermione Daggert, a waitress in the first book who solves an incidental crime and ends up involved in the main one, outstripping the cops with her observational skills. By the time this second book begins, she's completed three years of training to become the partner of Emma Denning, the only private investigator we know in the small Californian town of San Tobino and surely the most colorful. The cops she helped out last time around, Detectives Karl Kelly and Vito Kostowski, return too, as does the hotel of Milady's, where the murders of that book happened and where Hermione used to work. All are very much subservient characters though.
The company of Denning and Daggert is initially hired to look into the strange case of land on an Indian reservation which has suddenly fallen into uncharacteristic decline, but this is only the framing story and it's apparently wrapped up quickly enough. The real mystery arrives after Hermione solves the case, the Kanache tribe sell their blighted land and the buyer, Dr. Frederick Unlickner, builds the Institute for Holistic Health on it. A set of grisly accidents promptly befall the institute, pretty young things falling into ravines, often with lockpicks stuck into them, and it just may well be that none of them are really accidents, so Hermione is sent undercover to figure out what's really going on.
The most successful aspects of the book are the ones that are reminiscent from its predecessor. Senger's prose is smooth but insightful, her sentences crafted with carefully chosen vocabulary and a strong turn of phrase; it wouldn't surprise me if she also writes poetry. She crafts her dialogue in a more literary style than contemporary American writers tend to use, but she successfully keeps it realistic. I'm all for the approach.
Her characters are written deeply, though not in the usual way. Senger doesn't introduce them with standard descriptions like, 'she was 5'4" with mousy brown hair and a tattoo of a flower on her left wrist.' In fact, she mostly eschews physical attributes entirely, drawing her characters instead from deeper observations, so that we understand precisely who they are without having much clue what they look like.
The presentation is a little better than last time, although the cover design is still poor. A larger font size minimizes the other issues my OCD had with the design of the first book, even if most are still apparent. The text looks good and is thankfully well-proofed this time around. The use of smart quotes is consistent here at least, hallelujah!
The negative side is going to be difficult to explain without resorting to spoilers because it's mostly apparent through hindsight once the book is done, but I'll give it a go. Many might see it revolving around Senger's refusal to yet again play this out as a straight mystery, focusing far more on developing her protagonist than her mystery. The framing story, with its supernatural flavour, renders that approach even less tangible, meaning that this is just as far from a recognizable mystery as her first book.
Hermione doesn't merely avoid summoning everyone together at the end of the book to reveal the killer, as if this could be mistaken for an Agatha Christie novel, she doesn't follow clues or draw up lists of suspects either and even as an undercover PI she avoids sticking her nose in and stirring things up. She's perhaps the most passive PI I've ever read and that's fine, expect that Senger's skills of observation are focused more on her than on anyone else.
For my part, the negative side is in how we assign value to what we read. The highly unorthodox way in which the killer is 'caught' in 'Betrayal, Betrothal, and Blood' sets the scene for this one, in which our mystery transforms into a thriller and then wraps itself up with short shrift. We don't wonder about what we've read but we do wonder about why we read it. If the ending could have happened at any point in time with exactly the same result, why did we read what we read up to that point?
Well, that would be a valid concern if this were a mystery first and foremost, as indeed it's marketed and tends to be described. Senger calls her novels 'dark murder mysteries', but while they certainly include those elements, they're not the driving ones. As with her first book, this is above all a character study, something that really should be shelved in general fiction rather than mystery or crime, for all that the story revolves around a set of murders. We're not here to solve anything, we're here to observe Hermione Daggert as she goes about her business observing other people and the value in the book is in how her character develops.
Like 'Betrayal, Betrothal, and Blood', this flows well and keeps our interest throughout, but isn't phrased in the sort of way that mystery fans are likely to appreciate. At points, this could be described as a thriller, a horror story or a drama, but it's never eager to really be a mystery. Its value is in Senger's writing, relentlessly unorthodox approach and, above all, her ability to observe. Armchair detectives need not apply. ~~ Hal C F Astell