The Bone Fire by Chris­tine Bar­ber, Mino­taur Books/St. Martin’s Pub­lish­ing Group, 309 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Jen­nifer Levin

It would be a ma­jor lit­er­ary achieve­ment to cap­ture a place as di­verse and mis­un­der­stood as Santa Fe with­out nar­row­ing the city’s story to suit some ro­man­ti­cized no­tion of the Amer­i­can South­west. In The Bone Fire, the fol­low-up to her Tony Hiller­man Prize-win­ning first novel,

The Re­place­ment Child, Chris­tine Bar­ber comes pretty close to ac­com­plish­ing this feat. The en­gross­ing tale takes place dur­ing Fi­esta and has all the hall­marks of be­ing writ­ten by some­one who lives or has lived in Santa Fe. Bar­ber ref­er­ences the Cow­girl, St. Michael’s High School, N.M. 599, carne adovada, the Rob­bie Romero case, and Fort Marcy Park, among dozens of other places, peo­ple, and ex­am­ples of lo­cal lore. The mys­tery be­gins the morn­ing af­ter the burn­ing of Zo­zo­bra, when a child’s skull is found in the ashy re­mains of Old Man Gloom. The plot re­volves around the Ro­driguez fam­ily and its missing daugh­ter, Bri­anna, a case that, at first blush, bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the Romero fam­ily’s or­deal.

(A note to St. Martin’s Pub­lish­ing Group: of course read­ers shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the jacket art for The Bone Fire ap­pears to be of Burn­ing Man — not Zo­zo­bra — in Ne­vada — not New Mex­ico — if Ne­vada were on Mars and the artist had never been to Burn­ing Man. This is a po­ten­tial turnoff for read­ers in search of au­then­tic­ity.) Bar­ber, who worked as an edi­tor at The Santa Fe

New Mex­i­can, has a knack for slic­ing to the core of her richly flawed char­ac­ters. We meet lawen­force­ment of­fi­cers, crime-scene techs, first re­spon­ders, news re­porters, editors, artists, and crim­i­nals — Santa Feans from ev­ery walk of life. Bar­ber’s ear is finely tuned to the syn­tax and pac­ing of a large num­ber of Santa Fe ac­cents and at­ti­tudes, but for a reader to un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing on the page might well re­quire an equally qual­i­fied ear; the di­a­logue of­ten sounds awk­ward be­cause it lacks con­trac­tions, which has a sur­pris­ingly dis­rup­tive ef­fect on pac­ing and mean­ing. In gen­eral, the nar­ra­tive has a just-the­facts-ma’am qual­ity that doesn’t quite achieve hard-boiled, re­sult­ing in an ugly chop­pi­ness that cries out for an edi­tor with a more lyrical aes­thetic to smooth out the news-brief tone.

Lucy Newroe, an edi­tor, bud­ding al­co­holic, and am­a­teur sleuth, is one of two main pro­tag­o­nists; the other is po­lice de­tec­tive Sgt. Gil­bert Mon­toya, de­voted fam­ily man and all-around qual­ity guy. Gil is Santa Fe’s per­fect son, his qual­i­ties set in high re­lief against rel­a­tive new­comer Lucy’s self-loathing self-pity. Gil would be an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter re­gard­less of the sur­round­ing story. Lucy, on the other hand, is in­ter­est­ing en­tirely be­cause she hunts for clues and pushes the plot along. Though Lucy has a back story that ex­plains her cold and crass per­son­al­ity, it isn’t enough to make her sym­pa­thetic or lik­able. Out­side of the mys­tery, she does al­most noth­ing but com­plain about what a lousy per­son she is, and other than her dogged yet un­ex­plained pur­suit of the truth on be­half of a mur­dered lit­tle girl, we are given noth­ing that con­tra­dicts her self-as­sess­ment. She can also come across as less than in­tel­li­gent, even naive, as though she doesn’t al­ways know what words mean when she uses them, which is a bit in­con­gru­ous, given her job.

We learn of her onenight stand with a Cow­girl bar­tender: “Of course she would pick up a felon with no sense of hu­mor, who in broad day­light had re­ally bad tat­toos and some dis­turb­ing scars on his neck. She fished the licorice black rock out of her pocket and dropped it in the bowl by the front door. In the bowl were other candy-col­ored rocks and a few pot­tery shards. Lucy had taken to pick­ing up pieces of the mish­mash she saw on the desert floor, think­ing they made an or­ganic kind of pot­pourri.”

A no­tice­able bias in the story dis­fa­vors wealthy An­g­los, at least those per­ceived to be self-im­por­tant or narcissistic. An artist whose work is cru­cial to the book’s great, heal­ing rev­e­la­tion is treated as hope­lessly ig­no­rant and self-in­volved, yet it is these very traits that set the plot in mo­tion. An­other mi­nor but piv­otal char­ac­ter is a stand-in for ev­ery Hollywood has-been who has ever re­lo­cated to New Mex­ico. It’s a de­vice that feels clown­ish in com­par­i­son to Bar­ber’s deft han­dling of the Ro­driguezes’ fam­ily se­crets — as though the author cheated.

The beau­ti­ful part of The Bone Fire is its re­fusal to turn away from truth. The crimes at the cen­ter of the mys­tery be­gin with the kind of all-toocom­mon vi­o­la­tion that, left to fes­ter in si­lence, leaks its poi­son through mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions. Bar­ber un­der­stands the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of child abuse and how de­nial is a magic that holds a pre­car­i­ous re­al­ity in place. The mes­sage de­liv­ered over and over is that se­crets don’t stay se­cret, that tug­ging one small thread can un­ravel ev­ery care­fully wo­ven lie.

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