When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber
One of the reasons I enjoy reading is the chance to see into different cultures and to gain insights into how “other” people live. Obviously in science fiction and fantasy, the settings are “fictional”, i.e. they may be extrapolations from what we have now or recreations of what we had in the past. Either way, the human characters should react credibly. If aliens or supernatural creatures play a role, we can expect them to be “different”, but we still hope they will conform to basic standards of rationality and credibility. If an alien can develop interstellar transport, we expect to find signs of intelligence even though it may not be applied in ways we expect. When I come to fiction supposedly rooted in contemporary cultures, I value the chance to learn about different places. That’s why I enjoy work translated from other languages. Such books offer a different pair of eyes through which to view the world. I suppose my first exposure to American fiction came as a shock or surprise. It really was different “over there”. Now after more than fifty years of books, film and television, I’ve become rather blasé, accepting the amorphous lump of America as just another bit of my cultural understanding.
Except, that is, when books like this appear on my pile to be read. When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber, (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the third mystery novel featuring Detective Sergeant Gil Montoya of the Santa Fe Police Department and Lucy Newroe, who has only just kept her job at The Capital Tribune while continuing to volunteer as an emergency medical technician, which includes rushing into burning buildings to save people from the flames (or not if they are already dead). The relationship between this pair is complicated because he’s a self-righteous prick who doesn’t trust journalists, particularly those who have problems with alcohol. So at first sight, this looks like a routine police procedural thriller. But it’s set in Santa Fe and, to all intents and purposes, that’s not America. Detective Montoya’s partner, Joe is from the America I know a little about and he’s a literary device so the author can tell is about the Santa Fe area, its people, and customs as the investigation progresses. It’s completely fascinating. We start off with Las Posadas on the Santa Fe Plaza. This is the local equivalent of a British mystery play. It tells the story of the innkeepers turning away Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem leading up to the Nativity. And then get into the detail of how people introduce themselves, the different social structures and how they map on to the different gene pools and ethic groups. Membership of these different groups and maintaining the traditions they represent can lead to slight conflicts of interest, an issue explored through the eyes of police officer Kristen Valdez. The glimpse into the lives of the mountain men is also revealing. This makes the book one of the most culturally interesting I’ve read so far this year.
The plot is also better than competent. We’re presented with a series of home invasions which leave bodies behind. When the second occurs, there appears to be a link to the preproduction work being done to film in a local prison where a notorious riot took place. However, after the third invasion, Lucy Newroe comes up with the real connection. There’s just one problem. She’s been arrested for drink driving and Gil Montoya is refusing to talk with her. She promised to quit at the end of the last book and he feels betrayed. And this points to my problem with the book. I find the character of Gil Montoya difficult to accept. I’ve met men like him. They appear happy and reasonable in their home lives. Meet the family and this is the Dr Jekyll side of the personality. But meet this person outside, particularly in a job context involving the use of power, and they become Mr Hyde. I have no difficulty in relating to people who are focused and committed. These are the obsessional people who work their way through to the right answer by hard hard and some inspiration. Sadly, this is a self-righteous and judgmental man who moralises over the behaviour of others and reacts aggressively when criticised. Indeed, this idiot just will not be told when he’s wrong. If Joe did not literally force him to listen, he would be dead. Such men should never be in positions of power because, by definition, they are abusing that power every second. Were it not for Joe, Lucy Newroe and Kristen Valdez, he would blunder off into the wrong investigation and more people would die. As to Lucy, she’s an alcoholic who’s just emerging from the denial stage. I can understand and forgive her erratic behaviour because of her addiction.
So this completes my learning experience from the book. Culturally, there’s a higher level of machismo on display in Santa Fe and many men allow the power to go to their heads when they join the police force. Assuming the worst, i.e. Gil Montoya is a prevailing stereotype for this part of America, I make a vow never to visit. I would undoubtedly be killed within minutes of arriving. When the Devil Doesn’t Show works well as a police procedural even though the key breakthrough is made by a drunk journalist, and there’s some pleasing chasing about for the thriller bit. Overall, it’s an above average book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.