I wish that more writers could churn out a novel as smoothly as Michael McGarrity, the former ranch hand, psychotherapist, college teacher, corporate consultant, public-defense investigator, public-health bureaucrat, deputy sheriff and law-enforcement-academy instructor. His style is un-self-conscious; his protagonist is low-key; his narrative is layered but not overstuffed; his politics are subtle but discernible--and he's produced a well-crafted tale.
Nothing but Trouble is the 10th novel in McGarrity's Kevin Kerney mystery series. Santa Fe resident McGarrity has set his protagonist in territory familiar to himself. In the early books, Kerney was a cop forced into retirement; here, Kerney's the respected police chief of Santa Fe.
The book opens with nothing-but-trouble school buddy Johnny Jordan surfacing after 30 years to make Kerney a business proposition. Rich-boy Jordan had been playing pro-rodeo cowboy until injuries forced him out. Having squandered money on ill-advised deals, he now thinks he's onto the mother lode with a new scheme: cable TV rodeo. It's to be jump-started by a contemporary Western movie involving cops that would be filmed on his parents' spread in the "Bootheel" of Southern New Mexico. Kerney would be the consultant on police procedure.
Despite his reservations about Jordan, Kerney agrees to sign on. It would provide a little vacation for him, his wife (Lt. Col. Sara Brannon) and their 3-year-old son, Patrick.
When Kerney's boss, the mayor of Santa Fe, announces he won't run for re-election, Kerney figures the time might be right to step down as police chief. Sara and Patrick have been living in Washington, D.C., and Kerney in Santa Fe; his retirement could open up some family time together.
"Family time," however, takes on a new meaning when Sara suddenly heads to Ireland on a mission and leaves Patrick in Kerney's care. Sara is investigating the disappearance of an Army AWOL suspected of gem smuggling. Complicating her job is her commanding officer, a jerk waiting for the chance to queer her success. Meanwhile, Kerney has stumbled on a dead federal undercover agent and possible people- and drug-trafficking in the Bootheel.
McGarrity neatly branches the narrative into two, with a few minor tributaries. Primary are Kerney's investigation of the undercover agent's death and the border activities, and Sara's pursuit of the gem-smuggler as a cover for the investigation of some Washington shenanigans. At home, Kerney does meat-and-potatoes police work--planning crowd control during Santa Fe tourist season, tracking down an art thief and doing paperwork--as he arranges day care.
McGarrity has achieved a comfortable balance between Kerney's and Sara's work, and created enough outside activity to make the book feel like real life. Kerney and Sara's family issues come into play as well: With a sweet little kid who needs two parents, but Sara's ambition to rise as high in the Army as she can, their long-distance marriage is a challenge.
Nothing but Trouble feels nothing if not authentic. Setting, police procedure, filmmaking, even little current-event comments read as genuine.
The Land of Enchantment clearly has an admirer in Michael McGarrity. He describes Santa Fe with knowing, qualified affection--appreciative of its culture and history, but weary of its tourist-drawing "quaintness." Like the Irish village Sara visits, it can be afflicted with a "theme-park mentality and crass consumerism."
Affection and commentary show up together in the "Bootheel" as well: The strip of land that juts down into Mexico has its beauty and its problems. McGarrity sets the action in an area struggling with shrinking groundwater, uneven land stewardship, drug- and immigrant-smuggling, and environmental pollution. In fact, we Zonies get a little play: As Kerney noses around looking for the federal agent's killers, he's told that if they're not careful, the Mexico/New Mexico border might become like "the sieve" of Southern Arizona.
As his police procedures ring true, so does the suggestion of conflict between enforcement agencies, and then--by extension--big government agencies. Early in his investigation, Kerney is rudely rousted by a couple of customs agents. From Kerney's question of dirty cops and feds vs. locals, it's not too grand of a step to apply the question to career military folks in the Pentagon and the shady-dealing friends of the White House in Washington ... Sara's bugaboo.
McGarrity also takes us backstage for a glimpse of movie-making (it's your chance to find out what a key grip is). That's more evidence of the verisimilitude a writer can provide if s/he's done more in the world than tap away behind a desk.