White folks are allowed to attend some kachina dances on the Hopi reservation, but they are expected to remain quietly in the back and refrain from photographing the proceedings. When novelist Shannon Baker takes readers to a social dance on Second Mesa, she honors that rule: She describes the village in which the dance takes place but paints the dancers with the general broad strokes that our previous experience of "kachina" can fill in. Think painted masks with eye slits, feathers, rattles, bells.
Baker, who lives in Flagstaff, has set this Nora Abbott mystery in her geographically, historically, politically, and culturally rich region. It offers loads of opportunity for vivid landscape depictions and homicide stagings.
Current events inform the plot of Tainted Mountain: Nora, a young businesswoman who has inherited a small ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks, has just won a court battle to allow her to produce artificial snow. The region has suffered years of drought and she'll go out of business without snow. Predictably, some Native Americans, for whom the peaks are sacred, oppose her plan. One guy, an in-your-face bellower called Big Elk, leads a crew of Indians and what Nora calls "Guilty White People" to follow Nora around and harass her.
She's won a legal battle, but a war's ahead for Nora. First, though she longs for the support of her husband, Scott, when he finally arrives at the courthouse, they have a spat and he walks off. He will soon be pushed off the side of a mountain and Nora will be a suspect. Next, the bimbo that Nora thought Scott had only briefly bedded appears at Scott's funeral and announces that she in fact was Scott's intended, and Nora had been slated to become his ex. Soon the bimbo, too, will wind up dead and Nora will again be a suspect. But that doesn't happen until—worst of all, apparently—Nora's mother, Abigail, shows up uninvited. Abigail the Perfect—Junior League; thrice married to wealthy men; the picture of well-appointed beauty— infuriates outdoorsy, flannel-shirted Nora, and her presence complicates the story.
While the central issue is snow production on the mountain, the central conflict arises out of the scheme of local tycoon Barrett McCreary to begin uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. Used to buying his way to what he wants, McCreary eliminates one obstacle after another and finally pushes his way into a partnership in Nora's ski enterprise.
Nora begins to question McCreary's intentions when he undermines her environmentally responsible plans for snow-making. We, on the other hand, already know his intentions: he's bent on mining, uranium contamination or not.
The problem with this mystery is that there isn't really much of one.
Baker shifts points of view between Nora and McCreary, so we're privy to her situation and his plotting. We see McCreary push Scott off the mountain and plan Bimbo's death. Nora doesn't know what Scott was up to, but the reader does. McCreary has a relationship with Hopis that we can intuit enough about to render the final revelation inconsequential. There are two areas that Nora puzzles over—the motivations of the handsome, apparent environmentalist Cole Huntsman, who appears out of nowhere whenever she needs saving; and the identity of an old Hopi guy who materializes periodically to ask Nora to save the mountain—but we pretty much figure them out.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of places in the book that provide some unintended mystery. They involve setting. The book opens with Nora nearly losing a "pursuer" down a 300-foot drop off a ledge, but the reader has no context in which to picture the ledge, or the trail that Nora then follows home. The locale is simply not described. Unlike with kachina dances, place details shouldn't be withheld; we can't fill in what we haven't seen.
Not all the settings are vague, however, and there's plenty of action to keep pages turning. Nora is often in danger, as is Heather, the adopted Hopi daughter of McCreary, who turns out to be a positive, mediating influence between Nora and her mother. There are flashing knives and explosions and (disturbingly, for this sometime Flagstaff forest-dweller) fire in the woods. Nora is a sympathetic character, and she has the potential for more escapades.
And Baker has done her research. A notable strength of this book is that she weaves Hopi history, mythology and culture smoothly and sensitively into the text. As Tainted Mountain ends, it looks as if Nora will be relocating out of state. Too bad. Novelist Baker will lose some great material if she abandons the peaks and mesas and sets future Nora Abbott mysteries in hipster Boulder. There's still mystery to be had in Hopi Land.