That's just one example of the many sketches of Arizona desert and ranch living you'll find throughout Sinclair Browning's Trade Ellis series. Trade, like Browning, is a real cowgirl and a genuine desert rat. Try this: "The brittlebush and ocotillo had gone dormant, leaving their leaves on the desert floor in an effort to conserve what little water they could suck up. The prickly pear cactus was now as flat as thin battered pancakes and the giant saguaros looked like they'd been fasting." Abbey and Bowden, you got company.
But this isn't a nature treatise--it's a detective novel. And a damn good one. Like Browning's earlier The Sporting Club, the primary story is based on a real incident. A bull-riding cowboy who uses initials marries a wealthy heiress almost twice his age. They go camping in the desert and drink a lot and even though she's a good swimmer, she's found drowned the next day.
That's the real story of Margaret Lesher and T. C. Thorstenson and her 1997 death. It's mirrored by Browning's fictional Abigail Van Thiessen and J.B. Calendar, a fact noted by the Contra Costa Times, the newspaper owned by the Lesher family, in a favorable feature story that ran last week. The real story ended in a ruling of accidental death. Browning's wonderful imagination does much more with the fictional version.
After Abbie's death, J.B. hires rancher and part-time PI Trade to prove him innocent. Like any good detective (or lawyer, or political consultant), she's never quite sure about her own client, giving the plot a dimension sometimes lacking in the genre. And there's a great secondary story involving Mexican drug lords and Trade's ranch foreman and his ex-wife that makes the action even tenser.
As a whodunit, Rode Hard scores big, revealing as the story unwinds an increasingly plausible list of suspects. Browning admirably fulfills the basic requirement of a mystery by keeping you mystified to the end. It could just as well be the colonel in the library with the candlestick. And those who know Southern Arizona will love the casual descriptions of and references to places like Picacho Peak and the Baboquivaris.
If you enjoyed Browning's earlier Trade Ellis yarns like The Last Song Dogs you will like this one even better. She's become a master of this form and is in the front rank of not just Arizona or Western mystery writers, but anybody else writing anywhere today.
After you've put away the horses and fed the stock, hang your Stetson and pull off your Tony Llamas, pour a glass of John Wayne tea, and curl up with the cattle dog at the foot of your chair. Plan to be there for a while--this one really is a page-turner.
Sinclair Browning discusses and signs copies of Rode Hard, Put Away Dead Saturday, February 10 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Clues Unlimited, 123 S. Eastbourne Ave. 326-8533.