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Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman

As I was reading Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012), I found myself thinking about the writing style. In my terms, it’s simple and uncomplicated. Yet it occurred to me that, to some readers, classifying a style as “simple” might be taken as slightly insulting. So I began wondering what I actually mean. After all, writing is nothing more than putting words in the right places to make sentences and paragraphs. As an example of an extreme approach, it was not unusual for Marcel Proust to write sentences containing more than 600 words. Hence, the choice of words and their arrangement on the page says something about the author. In practical terms, it offers a sample of vocabulary he or she uses and, by the way the words are arranged, says something about the way the author thinks. Obviously, authors don’t necessarily write in the same way they might talk after a few alcoholic beverages in the local pub, i.e. there’s a differences between public statements and private utterances. Nevertheless, all words in their contexts are a kind of window into the author’s mind. We see the meanings intended and make a judgement on their merit. So, in many senses, keeping the style simple is a virtue. It places the fewest barriers to understanding between the author and the readers except, in the case of Proust, a small subset of literary masochists genuinely enjoy a challenge.

Looking back at this book, it’s quite an interesting stylistic exercise. There are very few attempts to establish clear mental pictures of the settings or the people in the landscape. Other authors can spend pages establishing a look-and-feel impression, fleshing out descriptions to create “atmosphere”. Michael Norman tends tends to offer simple statements of where we are and, from time to time, mention a fact about physical appearance. So his priorities focus on the narrative. There’s to be no slowing down. He wants the most efficient delivery system possible for the plot. Hence, when I label a style “simple”, this is not a criticism. It describes a legitimate artistic choice to strip out details considered inessential. It’s a form of artistic minimalism. As a final thought on more general issues, when setting out to read a book, I find authorial omniscience can be a little annoying. Early on, we innocent readers are informed that events will soon threaten the lives of the series hero, J D Books, and his family. It rather dispels the slow realisation of imminent danger when the author has warned us in advance what to expect. If this had been a single lapse, I might have forgiven it, but it actually happens three or four times through the text.

Michael Norman clamping his left arm in a natural pose

So what about the plot? There’s a market in Indian artifacts recovered from land previous occupied by the tribes. For all unauthorised digging is illegal, pot hunters continue to go out into the desert in Southern Utah. Some are legitimate collectors. Others are out to profit from selling the recovered items on to the international market. Needless to say, when large amounts of money may be involved, amateurs are at risk. In this case, Rolly and Abby Rogers disappear on one of their exploratory digs. A visit to their home discovers a break-in. Their collection of artifacts has been stolen. Since the disappearance took place on federal land, this puts it in the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Ranger J D Books must therefore balance the collection of evidence in the desert and the investigation of the burglary. He reasons it’s easier to assume the two events are connected. If he can find out who broke in, it may lead to whoever kidnapped the Rogers. In practical terms, this is a linear police procedural as we watch over the Ranger’s shoulder as he tries to decide what might be significant. What lifts it above the more usual fare is that this is a small community. Everyone knows everyone else and, more importantly, may be related to each other in some way. Although he’s been away for a few years, our hero can’t move very far before running into a potential conflict of interest in the investigation or threatening the interests of a family with real political influence. This social, political and legal minefield generates real interest. Just how far should an investigator go when, for example, his brother-in-law may be a person of interest, or an attorney he dated represents one of the people arrested? The fact he isn’t immediately pulled from the case says something very significant about the level of financial support for law enforcement in this part of the world. There literally are no other people immediately available to move forward with the kidnapping case at the required speed. Although hope for finding the Rogers alive is fading, there can be no slow-down in the pursuit of the investigation. J D Books has to stay on the case, no matter what the social or technical difficulties.

The result is impressive, demonstrating in simple terms, the process an investigator will go through to work out whodunnit. Although there’s gun fire and other elements representing a slight shift towards a thriller format, Skeleton Picnic remains a classic piece of detective fiction in a small town where criminals are moderately incompetent and blood is thicker than water.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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