In English Lessons, an Arizona governor-elect is assassinated, skinned and hung upside down to flap in the desert breeze.
J.M. Hayes' sixth "Mad Dog and Englishman" mystery opens with a description of this politician's skin. He was previously a hard-line sheriff given to rounding up "illegals" and clamping down on the border, and he's named Joe.
As Arizona resident Hayes points out, the pols in our state provide more good material than a novelist could possibly use.
The book wastes no time kicking into action. As it opens, tribal police officer Heather English looks into a false tip and discovers the governor-elect's pelt. Within a few pages, her father—the county sheriff of Benteen County, Kan.—is forced to shoot out the oil pan of an old lady careening around a church parking lot and refusing to stop crashing into cars. A few more pages later—back near Three Points in Arizona—Heather's uncle, wannabe shaman Mad Dog, opens a package and finds a severed human hand.
And it's Christmas Day. None of these folks is sitting around and leisurely exchanging gifts.
The rest of the book carries on at that pace. With flipbook-fast plotting, it cuts to and from the action of each of the major players—Heather, Sheriff English and Mad Dog—and then adds in a bad-guy assassin who returns to Tucson with his sights on Heather.
Apparently, at issue here is Mexican drug warfare spilling over into the U.S. "Apparently," because while there are gangs vying for cartel dominance, it's not clear exactly which one the assassin is working for ... if any. He efficiently dispatches any characters he doesn't like—whatever their affiliations. Additionally, for some reason, uncle Mad Dog has been set up as a decoy drug lord, and he becomes a target.
Heather gets torn between dealing with the murdered governor and the anonymous hand, saving her uncle, securing evidence, respecting police jurisdictions, and making it to dinner in the foothills with her new boyfriend—the son of yet another sleazy Arizona politician.
And the Kansas plotline? There, bumper cars and some rude yellow snow on a Christmas crèche have instigated a full-out militia assault on Sheriff English. Word got out that English had initiated a "Marxist-fascist" Obama "arms confiscation," and a clutch of farmers in camouflage has attacked the courthouse (where the sheriff's middle-age secretary is deep into a computer war game); they're determined to protect to the death their Second Amendment rights.
Hayes' writing has been referred to as "madcap." Yeah?
The characters in this scramble are about as developed as you'd expect: They have personality, not depth, and they're there to provide action. Heather is (naturally) smart, fearless, quick and martial-arts savvy. The fact that she's also a lawyer arms her against police-jurisdictional bullying.
Aging-hippie Mad Dog is more a victim than an actor in this novel (that's if you consider a serious come-on by a gorgeous attorney named Grijalva "victimization"), but he provides a supernatural element with his dog- partner, Hailey. It does take some suspension of disbelief—maybe a grand leap of faith—to swallow the qualities of Hailey, his "spirit" hybrid wolf-dog. If you're willing to play along, it can be fun. (In his afterword, Hayes testifies that he "believe[s] in Dog.")
Sheriff English might be the book's most-developed character. As an aging, widowed law officer still recovering from a serious injury, and the only reliable officer in the county, he's pushed to reflect on mortality and the strength of his hometown allies as he prepares to take on the crazed gun-rights militia.
One nice character addition to this book is a spunky child you do begin to care about. She might get as much action as Hailey.
As with other Southern Arizona writers, Hayes' use of the local setting allows Tucsonans to run around town with the characters—past Paul Bunyan on Stone Avenue, into an Ice House condo downtown, and over to Hi Corbett for a little showdown.
No one's ever going to accuse J.M. Hayes of sublime aesthetics in this work, or profound issues-exploration. He writes with an ironic comic sense, however, tells a high-speed story, and pops away at some of the absurd cultural, political and social excesses of our state and place in history. And onto that, he throws in a non-ironic paean to Dog.
It's not destined for the Great Books shelf, but English Lessons is entertaining.