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