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Tucson Thriller

Susan Cummins Miller packs a ton of trivia--and death--into her latest compelling mystery

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If you're in a Frankie MacFarlane novel, most likely, you're dead.

Bodies stack up throughout the pages of Detachment Fault, the second in Susan Cummins Miller's MacFarlane mysteries, even faster than in a Law and Order opening segment. And before the commercial break, Frankie MacFarlane--a geology doctoral student and professor in Arizona--is embroiled in it all.

Returning to her hometown of Tucson after nearly 12 years, Frankie finds herself unbalanced, not only by her connections to the growing number of murder victims, but also by how much has changed.

As a geologist, Frankie's accustomed to a slower brand of change, the type that moves mountains and creates valleys. While the Earth might appear constant and immovable, the last thing Frankie finds when she tries to come home again is stability.

It takes only three paragraphs for the first body--well, to be exact, a faceless head attached to only a torso--to float into the scene. It's Columbus Day weekend, and Frankie, her brother Jamie and his girlfriend, Carla, are fishing in Sonora, Mexico. Several pages later, when Mexican officials question the trio, Carla inexplicably disappears, leaving Frankie and Jamie to cross the border alone.

The next batch of unfortunate characters also has connections to the geology guru. Angelisa Corday, a freelance journalist, is a student of Frankie's at the fictitious Foothills Community College; Hector Ortiz is a colleague and a chemistry professor.

The action-packed plot plays out between Columbus Day and El Dia de los Muertos--less than a month's time--and is at times difficult to follow, with more murders emerging, several bombs exploding and shady characters abounding, all punctuated by Frankie's personal struggles with the ghost of her ex-fiancé and the preparations for her doctoral defense.

Scattered about Miller's complicated page-turner are geology, biology, history, nature, astronomy and geography factoids, that add to the layered, detailed images Miller creates--sure to endear any scientifically bent Tucsonan while flustering those readers who've never triumphed in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

At times, Detachment Fault's intricacy echoes the sophistication but inaccessibility of a Tom Clancy novel. The data and details of this well-rounded read are all there, but the plethora of subject matters often isn't thoroughly explained to the freshmen in the class. Miller, however, while hovering between a Clancy and a Michael Crichton tome, does attempt to weave some explanations of her many finer points into the book, at least where the geology is concerned.

For example, Miller explains the title of her book--which she cunningly uses both metaphorically and as a plot piece during a Sabino Canyon chase--several times. As Frankie stares one evening at the Santa Catalina Mountains, lost in the insanity of a murderous day, she notes that the "thin, rocky skin of the mountains had wrinkled and cracked and separated from the core along a zone of dislocation, a detachment fault."

For those who require a little more insight, Miller offers a heuristic toward the end of the book, defining the Catalina detachment fault in terms of a Snickers bar: "the thin chocolate layer on top that could slide on the plastic caramel until it detached, just as the skin of the mountains had slid, millions of years ago, to where it now rested, under the gravelly floor of the Tucson Basin."

Regardless, these scientific morsels aren't crucial to the story, which is appealing enough to keep even those too dim to appreciate Miller's erudition interested. And Frankie is likeable enough, though her persona as a doctoral student is idealized at best.

Periodically, Frankie also resembles detective Bob Goran from Law and Order: Criminal Intent, displaying the same manner of disingenuousness, as if she knows too much about too many things. It makes perfect sense that she can recognize an alexandrite gemstone or comprehend the geological layout of Sabino Canyon. But she can cook and sing, identify any species of plant or bird, pull obscure historical facts from sedimentary mental layers and stand strong, even when being hunted like a javelina.

Of course, having spent eons in higher education does provide one a vat of useless knowledge.

Despite, and due to, the complexity of Miller's mystery, Detachment Fault remains a first-rate read, seasoned with a pinch of this and a dash of that. This is presumably how the delicate-but-hearty Frankie saves her skin--and re-creates her mother's best-selling recipes in between catching killers.

With a heroine as talented as James Bond and the late Julia Child, it's too bad there aren't cooking instructions strewn throughout the book.

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