NightZone by Steven F Havill
NightZone by Steven F Havill (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the nineteenth in the Posadas County Mystery series. To say that I’ve come to the party late is one of the all-time understatements. Sill, having missed the first eighteen, I can at least finally arrive with my apologies to the host for being so late. As a senior citizen, books like this are good for my morale. Too often, modern books show those of an older age profile as being close-to-death and therefore on-the-scrap-heap of life until we have the decency to go off to wherever we’re going (and not before time). Here we’ve got former Posadas Sheriff William K Gastner. He’s a sprightly seventy-four years young, and has more knowledge and experience in his little finger than the cohort of younger law enforcers who’ve replaced him in this area of New Mexico. Other books by the author set in the same location feature Undersheriff Estella Reyes-Guzman who replaced Gastner when he retired, cumulatively giving us an ever more detailed view of life in this part of the American West.
This time, our insomniac retiree is up on a mesa, enjoying the peace and solitude of the night sky when he sees as flash of light some twenty miles away. Minutes later, he’s calling in both a fire and a vehicle running across the prairie below him. When he sees the power has gone out in the nearby township, he realises this is all probably connected. This brings tragedy because a police officer stopping a suspect vehicle some miles away is shot dead. When the authorities arrive to put out the fire, they discover someone has chainsawed the utility poles, bringing down the power lines. A body has also been left behind, not quite decapitated by one of the falling poles. Just taking this opening fifth of the book illustrates the beauty of the author’s approach. There’s wonderful pace in the narrative, moving us rapidly through the set-up, but our prudent driver moves safely across the nighttime landscape as the youngsters go barrelling past him at 100 mph. Younger officers may offer him a steadying hand on difficult ground as he walks the ground, but speed of physical travel does match acuity of mind and calmness in the face of difficulty.
The apparent trigger for this excitement is the proposed development of a major astronomical radio telescope and tourist centre by wealthy Miles Waddell on the mesa at his ranch. The power lines cut supplied the site which, if and when it’s complete, will be called NightZone. And with all the crazies likely to be hostile to developments out on the prairies that might enable “them” to listen in to what they are saying or doing, Miles offers the job of security supremo to our candidate for an early grave. Fortunately for him, there’s a professional organisation bidding for the work. At least he can talk with the lady who’s making the pitch and offer an opinion. And, in the midst of all home-grown terrorist threats, there’s another shooting which happens as the town is building up for the return of its prodigy son — a brilliant pianist who’s required to go through a baptism of public performances as part of his education and training regime.
Not having read any of the previous books, I wasn’t quite sure which way the plot would develop. After the initial excitement, it seemed to be shaping up for a mystery approach with the old guy helping the youngsters out in a police procedural. But it fairly soon becomes apparent who they are looking for and it becomes an almost straight thriller for the key sections at the end. On the way, we continue the metanarrative of the lives of the local citizens and learn more about our hero’s interest in the history of the old West. At this point, I raise a vaguely questioning hand to signal a pause. Like this protagonist, I’m retired but pride myself on being fit for my age. I was on board for all the early activity. What was attempted and achieved seemed perfectly credible. But towards the end, I felt he was not only irresponsible but also physically more durable than is strictly credible. Don’t get me wrong. What happens is all standard fare for the heroes of thrillers. Indeed, if I had not known this was about someone who’s seventy-four years old, I would have been calmly congratulating the author on a job well done. But I’m afraid I end up feeling faintly dissatisfied. With his physical limitations and at his age, I think he might have been a little more circumspect. Or perhaps this is just me being a killjoy. If he was more circumspect, there would be less thrilling stuff going on and the excitement quotient would drop. And that would never do if you were in the business of writing thrillers. So NightZone should be counted a success. Not only does it advance the broader narrative arcs about the local citizenry as we look forward to the twentieth book in the series, it also gives our old guy a case he can really get his teeth into.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.