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Problem Solver

Pete Hautman's new novel stars a life-challenged Tucsonan

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Sure, it's a bit trendy these days for crime writers to saddle their protagonists with unusual pressures and quirks. There's novelist Jonathan Lethem's Tourette's-suffering detective in Motherless Brooklyn, USA Network's OCD-riddled Monk, and the very pregnant Cordelia Gray from Masterpiece Theatre. But National Book Award winner Pete Hautman offers an especially problem-addled narrator in his latest novel, The Prop.

Peeky Kane ekes out a living playing poker at the tables of the Casino Santa Cruz, a fictional Tucson gambling joint. She's a prop, which means she's paid to sit at a poker table and act as a shill, luring customers by giving the impression that things are happening. Not the greatest of jobs, right?

Well, add the fact that Peeky's boyfriend is suspected of a casino killing and holdup, and her daughter is a runaway crackhead, and you've got a woman with some serious issues.

Hautman's novel isn't a downer, however. It's a perky, punchy narrative that moves swiftly while still managing to develop Peeky as a character as she squares off against her daughter, Jaymie, her aggressive son-in-law, her missing beau and the mysterious Hector Vega, "the founder and leader of the Santa Cruz, the biggest little tribal nation in the Southwest." The nation owns the casino in which Peeky props, and when clown-garbed maniacs shoot up the place and make off with millions, Vega requires Peeky's keen sense of observation to solve the crime.

Peeky explains how her skill in people-reading is both accurate and encyclopedic:

I make my living by noticing the little things: the flicker of an eyelid, the throbbing of a vein. A pupil dilating. A hand shaking. My mind is a catalog of tics, twitches, tremors and mannerisms. I remember faces and I remember the things that people do with their bodies. I see how people walk and sit and hold their cards and smoke their cigarettes. I can tell you how many moles Mutter Blodgett had on his face--19. I notice how long a player looks at his cards and how he bets, and I remember what it means, and because of this I am very good at what I do.

Of course, this near-superpower inevitably leads her into amateur sleuthing, and into attempting--more than once--to rescue her daughter from a pack of gun-toting addicts in the middle of the desert. To compound matters, unknown intruders ransack Peeky's house looking for something--but what? Peeky thinks it might be a certain key. What it opens is anybody's guess.

Hautman's prose style is easygoing and effortless. However, if there's one drawback to this approach, it's in the action scenes, where the style falls a little flat. Those seeking Elmore Leonard-style blood and guts likely won't enjoy The Prop for reasons the following fragment makes self-evident:

The clown pulls out a small handgun and fires three times, as fast as hands can clap. A hole appears in Dolores' forehead, the other bullet hits Camilla in the face, just below her right eye, her mouth still open in a happy grin. The third shot takes the guard in the neck. He staggers back, clutching his throat, blood spurting.

What should be the most horrifying moment in the novel--the murder/robbery--is rendered too matter-of-factly to instill a visceral reaction in the reader in the way Leonard, Joe Lansdale, or other great crime scribes make it happen. It's a minor quibble, since The Prop is more about the troubled inner life of Peeky, who struggles to solve the mystery of the casino raid and the more tangled mystery of her own life. Hint: One of these is never solved. And in the gorgeous epilogue, Peeky ponders the weight of it all:

I think of the peyote cactus in its shallow handmade pot and think about Jaymie. This whole drug thing she is into, I don't understand it. Is it anything like playing poker? Maybe I'll drive out into the desert and eat some peyote. Maybe I will see the map of the universe and hear the singing of the moon and feel the desert wind like warm oil on my breasts.

The Prop is also a loving tribute to the city of Tucson, particularly in the Hemingwayesque description of a perfect Mexican meal at Crossroads on Fourth Avenue:

I squeeze a lime slice over one of the tacos, fold the tortilla over the meat and cabbage, and bite into it. As soon as the salty beef and tangy lime hits my tongue, I realize that I've eaten almost nothing all day but a few spoonfuls of ice cream. I devour all three tacos in about five minutes and wish I'd ordered three more.

We, the readers, wish we were there to order tacos, too.

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