Desert Noir is the first book in the 'Lena Jones' mysteries by Betty Webb. Kay at Kay's Reading Life mentioned the series here and, intrigued, I thought I'd give them a go. Luckily my library catalogue had a copy of this first book. It qualifies for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge under the June category of 'original publication month'.
Lena Jones has left the police force in Scottsdale (or possibly Phoenix?), Arizona, after suffering a bad injury. She's set up her own private investigation bureau, employing Jimmy, a Pima Indian, as her computer expert. Lena has had a very rough upbringing. Shot by persons unknown when she was four years old and then passed from one foster home to another, Lena is a survivor, but a bruised one.
Her offices are on Scottsdale's main street just opposite various art galleries and shops. One of them is owned by a friend of Lena's, Clarice Kobe, who is from a wealthy but dysfunctional family. When Clarice is found beaten to death in her gallery, Lena feels she owes it to the woman to find out who did it as she was one of the few people locally who made overtures of friendship towards her.
Suspect number one is Clarice's ex-husband, Jay. While still married to him Clarice often bore the scars and bruises from the regular beatings he inflicted upon her... but it seems he has an alibi from his new girlfriend. No one is convinced by it though. But what about George Haozous, the Apache artist, who was constantly rowing with the dead woman over her keeping his violent and graphic work in her gallery? And the family of an elderly woman who died as a result of Clarice's involvement in a new property development? Lena slowly realises that she didn't know her friend as well as she thought she did. The woman clearly had a dark side and quite few people are not sorry she's dead. But who hated her enough to murder her?
Well, I rather fancy that this is not a series for all. Desert Noir is certainly not a 'cozy'. It delves into the darker side of life and pulls no punches about the urbanisation of the Arizona desert and how it's not always arrived at honestly, although it must be borne in mind that this is 'fiction'. Nevertheless, I was unaware of it so I certainly learnt a lot from reading this and found it all fascinating. Oddly enough, the book I've just finished, How the Light Gets In, an Armand Gamache story by Louise Penny, touches on the same thing, but in Quebec. Both reach the same conclusion, that there's not a lot of honesty in the construction industry.
So this not really a crime book to cheer you up. Lena herself is badly damaged. Shot in the street, aged four, by someone she was with but can't remember, she is scarred for life. Her search to find out who she is and who shot her is clearly going to be an ongoing theme and she makes some headway in this story. The mystery of who shot Clarice Kobe was well handled, I didn't guess who the culprit was and I usually do, so that's good.
To be honest the best thing about this book is its sense of place. The Arizona desert comes alive, one scene towards the end about survival out there was terrific. I also enjoyed the American Indian connection and learning new things about the tribes - Pima, Apache, Hopi etc. And I really liked Jimmy. I plan to read on in this series and hope these themes are enlarged upon in future books.