by Sharon Tucker
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” —Mark Twain
There is a lot to be said for young, attractive, very bright police officers in fiction. They possess boundless energy, and can usually chase, then actually catch, malefactors. However, Bill Gastner, Undersheriff of Posadas County New Mexico, has already raised a family, been widowed, and has been on the job for more years that he cares to count with retirement on the horizon. He also knows that in Posadas County, the undersheriff does the job and the sheriff is an administrator. It’s only when the sheriff starts trying to be a police officer that a tangle ensues. With a politician in the head office, Gastner needs at least one top investigator to round out the organization and he has that in Sgt. Estelle Reyes. No doubt, she will move up to bigger and better things in his or another police force before too long, but while he has her, nothing much gets by them.
Heartshot(1991), the first in the series, introduces the Posadas County Police Department and the town of Posadas just as a tragic car accident with multiple teen fatalities has parents grieving and threatening gun violence. In Bitter Recoil (1992), we find Bill Gastner recouping from a quadruple bypass and visiting with a former Posadas County Police Department officer when they discover the body of a young woman obviously thrown from a moving vehicle—some recuperative time this will be. Then the suspicious deaths of elderly residents of Posadas has Gastner and Reyes on the move, especially since one of those threatened is a close relative in Twice Buried (1994). The perspective of these three police procedurals is somewhat unusual since it is that of an aging, almost-retired veteran of the police department informed by the perspective of Reyes, a very talented, young police officer, but it works.
Finding a large cache of drugs in a wrecked car opens up what every border town dreads—the probability of a drug cartel striving to gain a foothold. The multiple, youthful fatalities in Heartshot are tragic enough, yet another youth’s death shortly follows, furthering the mystery and opening up a broader scope for investigation. Is a shady roadside inn a part of the growing mystery? Gastner thinks it may be since the inn’s proprietor has a son whose reputation is less than savory. When the death of a patrol officer and the severe injury of his ride-along make the stakes even higher, clues take the investigation in more than one direction. The fact that Gastner’s health is not the best does not interfere with his efficiency, but it does make his already dangerous work into a life-threatening proposition.
As Gastner takes a mandatory vacation for his health in Bitter Recoil, misfortune would have it that a body is found uncomfortably near where he has chosen to camp. Soon he and Reyes are deep into speculation about the condition in which they find the body—the young, healthy, and, it turns out, pregnant girl fought hard to climb up the slope a car knocked her over and down. Preliminary investigation into her life turns up that she was involved with a religious outcast camped in the nearby mountains. A local priest proves valuable to the inquiry as well, but his information is as suspect as that of the mountain recluse. Since they soon discovered that the very young daughter of the murdered girl is in the care of the man in the mountains, the legality of his custody is certainly in doubt, made worse by the strange youth who lives with them. What will have to happen to draw all these seemingly unrelated loose ends together?
The elderly are too often easy targets for criminals, and this is the case in Twice Buried when a long-retired local schoolteacher, Anna Hocking, calls to report suspicious noises. For whatever reasons, Gastner is two hours getting to her door—her multiple, similar calls amounting to nothing in the past, no doubt influencing his cavalier attitude. Sadly, this time Miss Hocking was right, but what or whom she heard is not immediately evident. Gastner is too late and finds her dead in her cellar under suspicious circumstances. Elderly Reuben Fuentes cannot understand who would have poisoned his dogs or who would have a grudge against his rather pushy realtor neighbor either, but his body turns up on Reuben’s property. None of these incidents seem related so Gastner and Reyes cannot find immediate, plausible answers—especially for the death of the realtor. What are the common elements here? Are there common elements?
I found this series to be a surprise. Reading them is like walking into a series of places that are pleasantly familiar in which one is prone to linger. I loved Bill Gastner’s voice as the first person narrator. He’s full of quiet wisdom, but never forces it on anyone. He’s realistic about his limitations but knows his intrinsic value. Contrast his sagacity with the youth, energy, and promise of Elena Reyes who has upward mobility in mind and the duo is highly effective. Gastner is very slowly winding down his career in law enforcement as she is on the rise. Their contrasts are what makes the relationship work so well, and it is pleasant to be part of that relationship as a reader. Steven F. Havill has created characters one would like to know, but we will have to content ourselves with reading about them.
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