Frances Crane is a new author to me. She lived for a time in Taos, New Mexico, an artist colony managed by Mabel Dodge Luhan, which hosted many eminent artists and writers. The setting for this book – and perhaps some of its characters – are based on her time in Taos. After writing this, Crane went on to write 25 more books in the series, featuring the narrator and detective from this book. By anyone’s estimation, that’s a successful detective fiction career – but I’m going to reveal my opinion early. I don’t think I will be reading the rest of them. I don’t particularly enjoy dunking on books I don’t like, but I did feel I learnt something about why I find some books compelling, and others not so much.
Our narrator, Jean Holly, runs an antiques shop – the Turquoise Shop of the title – in the small New Mexico town of Santa Maria. The town is lorded over by Mona Brandon, who draws in artists and tourism with her wealth. Her husband, Tom Brandon, hasn’t been seen since Mona got his girlfriend Carmencita sent to prison. In his absence, Mona seems to have fallen for Michael O’Hara, an artist from New York who moved to Santa Maria. Carmencita, meanwhile, has begun living with a mysterious man named Arkwright, who may or may not be Mona’s missing husband.
The story begins just after the body of Arkwright has been found in the desert. Over the course of the first dozen chapters – most chapters are only a handful of pages long – we are introduced to the important residents of Santa Maria, beginning with Gilbert Mason, Jean’s… well, stalker, I guess. Gilbert acts as a kind of hateful Greek chorus on events, always popping up to offer insults and theories pointing to the guilt of those he hates the most.
We then meet Jean’s actual friends – artist Michael O’Hara and his wife Sonya, and Julia Price and Daisy Payne, who tend to appear in a pair and to always be mid-argument. Julia is The Reasonable One and Daisy is The Super Strong English Lady Weapon Nut Racist One.
Next up is Patrick Abbott, the main detective of the story, and Sheriff Trask. Somehow, despite the fact that she is friends with some of the suspects and acquaintances with others, Jean is allowed to sit in on some of their discussions. It might have something to do with the fact that Pat and Jean are immediately attracted to each other.
Mona herself appears along with Luis, a young Native American man who is her live-in servant.
The problems for me really start with the protagonist. Jean doesn’t appear to care about the victims, or to be interested in seeing the crimes solved. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care about anything in particular. She does do things to help people – that is, she conceals evidence – but only if that can be accomplished by doing nothing. While this attitude is probably pretty realistic, it makes for a frustrating read. Jean is useful only as the person seemingly everybody comes to to unburden their secrets; a role accomplished much more adeptly in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, for example. Her most relatable and emotional moment was when she rages at the poisonous hold Mona has on Santa Maria, before despairing that there’s nothing anyone could do that would break that hold. Aside from this moment, I found it impossible to empathize with Jean, as there seemed to be nothing there to empathize with.
As for the rest of the cast, the introduction to the American Mystery Classics edition describes them as “pleasantly quirky”. They certainly are quirky, but I wouldn’t say they are pleasant. Their quirks and flaws are depicted fairly well, but there seems to be nothing to the characters outside of their flaws. I looked forward to scenes featuring the fairly bland Patrick, as I knew the conversation would be straightforward for once. He and Jean do have a good cameraderie, though at times he can be condescending to her. But I can see how they ended up starring in more novels.
After finishing the book I felt like I’d gone into it with incorrect expectations. The romance subplot, and some of the writing – “It might have prevented a tragedy” – put me in mind of a Had-I-But-Known type book. That is, I was expecting suspense and a lot of drama.
This is not a suspense novel. I can’t tell if it’s intentional, but aside from a very few scenes there is no sense of danger at all, and no sense of urgency. I kept reading what felt like set-ups for suspenseful moments. What I expected was for the hooks to pay off in a predictable way – what I wanted was for the hooks to pay off in an unexpected way. Instead, I got no pay-off at all. Going in without that expectation may have made the book more enjoyable. What it really is is slice-of-life: there’s a lot of focus put on Jean’s daily tasks as she runs the shop, on cooking, on the clothes people wear (100% more sombreros than any other mystery I’ve read); on side-issues that turn out to be irrelevant to the plot. If you can relax into the depiction of running a shop in this unusual town you might enjoy it more than I did. At times the descriptions of the setting can be quite vivid – the book comes alive the most when Jean describes handling the decorative, lovingly crafted objects which she sells.
By the end of the book I’d formed a theory that the book was Frances Crane’s diary of life in Taos, just with the names changed and crime inserted.
This book has the shortest chapters on average of any book I’ve read. Typically, each scene gets its own chapter. When chapters are this frequent, they might as well not be there at all – they don’t help to keep the writing organized in any way. The writing style does a lot of telling rather than showing (for example, after a dramatic scene, Jean states “I felt hectic”, which is an odd way to put it anyway), except without the compression of events that usually suggests. With all of this combined, I just found the book kind of a slog.
This slow pacing does cause problems for finding the actual mystery plot in the midst of all the scenes of Mona being terrible, Gilbert being creepy, or people having a cocktail party. Jean does no investigating herself, and what investigation Pat does is mostly off-screen. At one point, Jean tells the Sheriff that she’ll look something up in the shop’s records to help him, before deciding do it later because the records will be dusty, which just shows you the full extent of her eagerness as a sleuth.
It’s a shame because the book has a number of decent clues – not exactly stunning clues, but clues nonetheless. I had trouble remembering them, because working out who said what and when is a problem when the book stretches over many days with a lot of similar events happening.
So, although the book was interesting due to the setting which is unusual compared to what I usually encounter in mysteries, I found the writing to be lacking. If I weren’t reading this for a book club, I don’t think I would have finished it. As it was, I put it down for several days halfway through out of frustration.
I can believe that Crane’s writing improved over the course of her 26-book series, but even so, I’m unlikely to return. I know there are other mysteries set in the New Mexico area, so I might check out one of those.