In the third book of her Sarah Burke series, Elizabeth Gunn juggles four different plots.
In one, our heroine receives a call about a box of bones found near 17th Street Market here in Tucson. In another, Burke and her partners must uncover the truth behind an apparent murder/suicide that has left a well-known married couple dead on their living-room floor.
Chapter 2 introduces the novel's third major plotline—and begins like another book entirely, summarizing the life of a young illegal immigrant. At first, I balked. However, the story so intrigued me that I kept reading, curious as to how—or if—it would connect with the others.
I should have been more trusting.
Gunn's fourth narrative thread sheds some much-needed light on Burke as something more than a harried detective for the Tucson Police Department. She is a loving daughter, a care-giving aunt and a marriage-wary girlfriend.
Gunn's prose can offer a benign entrée for readers (like me) who lack experience with what can often be a macabre genre. Her unvarnished descriptions of the late Frank and Lois Cooper—established and respected local furniture merchants—might not satisfy more the viscerally inclined readers of, say, Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis, but the descriptions paint a vivid picture with a few deft strokes, unburdened by a single superfluous word. "From over here," Gunn writes, "it looked as if the woman had been shot in the ear. ... A thin line of blood had streaked down her cheek ... and dripped onto the carpet until it congealed in a short stalactite off her chin. The lower half of her head was mostly missing."
After introducing the Coopers' two grown children as suspects, Gunn flashes to the scene near the 17th Street Market, where the medical examiner is arriving to inspect the box that is rumored to contain the bones of a long-wanted drug smuggler whose operation, "smallish for a cartel but too big and dangerous to be called a gang," has been terrorizing the community for years.
While Gunn excels in shifting from one plot and point of view to the next without confounding readers, she probably could have teased a novel twice the length of Kissing Arizona out of teenage Victoria Nunez's misadventures in illegal immigration. The drama of Vicky's narrative is more intense than the others, because Vicky is not a corpse or a box of bones; she's very much alive (and feisty to boot), driven to extreme and dangerous scheming in her quest to reach Tucson. Promising to kiss the ground when she arrives, Vicky is the novel's titular character.
Having come to Tucson with her parents as a 2-year-old, Vicky is deported at 13, along with her mother. She is forced into a pottery apprenticeship, realizing in the first week that "she would never be one of those who learned to coax beauty from the clay. Soon she understood fully how boring real poverty could be, how dismal it made her to work hard for bare survival and see everybody around her doing the same. At least in Tucson you could see other people living well, so you could dream of some day having what they had." Gunn leaves readers no choice but to sympathize with young Vicky, regardless of the laws she breaks.
But Kissing Arizona is ultimately Sarah Burke's book, and it was wise of Gunn to show, in that fourth narrative arc, other aspects of her heroine's crime-solving life, wherein the hardened detective softens in attending to an ailing mother, a boyfriend just as overworked and sleep-deprived as she is, and a 10-year-old niece who Sarah's "drug-befuddled sister had left stranded four months ago, when her addictions claimed her."
Tucsonans will delight in the many references to local vendors, street corners and native flora. However, sticklers for authentic dialogue might tire of the quippy cop conversations crammed with the kind of information best suited for summary. I longed for more access to the characters' thoughts and emotions which do not involve italicized sentences that read like voice-overs. But Gunn's proficiency with plot is undeniable; without confusion, she expertly tells four seemingly disparate stories, two of which overlap in a serendipitous, exciting way. I also appreciated the timeliness of Kissing Arizona's subject matter.
Gunn has risen to the ever-daunting challenge that all writers face: She kept a reader turning the pages.