The Drum Within

351 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - by James R. Scarantino

Santa Fe Po­lice Depart­ment de­tec­tive Denise Aragon is not hav­ing an easy night of it. She and her part­ner have re­sponded to a call about a dead young woman in a park­ing area up to­ward the ski basin. No sooner do they be­gin their work than a call comes in to drop ev­ery­thing and head back to town: The wife of a no­to­ri­ously ag­gres­sive lo­cal at­tor­ney has just been found dead, and in par­tic­u­larly hor­ri­ble cir­cum­stances.

Be­fore she knows it, Aragon is in close pur­suit of a pos­si­ble mur­derer, things are heat­ing up un­pleas­antly, and we’re not even half­way through the night — or very many pages into James R. Scarantino’s City Dif­fer­ent-set mys­tery novel, The Drum Within.

Soon ve­nal of­fi­cials, com­pet­ing coun­selors, and an ac­claimed artist whose work teeters be­tween hype and hypocrisy all help em­broil Aragon and her col­leagues in a whirlpool of ob­ses­sion and angst, with mul­ti­ple crimes weav­ing to­gether puz­zlingly. One thing is cer­tain: Aragon will dig out the truth if pos­si­ble, no mat­ter who or what is in the way.

A lo­cal, Aragon is one tough cookie — though call her that to her face and you might find a heap of pain com­ing right along. Her hair is cut short to evade pos­si­ble trou­ble in street fights, and on up­per-body day at the gym she bench presses 183 pounds in three sets of 15 reps. She has a ma­jor jones for Blake’s Lotaburger, she brown-noses no one, and she is de­ter­mined to do her duty, even when it might bring her into con­flict with the pow­ers that be. Es­pe­cially with the pow­ers that be.

For what amounts to a de­but novel — an ear­lier, un­pub­lished Scarantino work was ac­claimed in the South­west Writ­ers Work­shop In­ter­na­tional Writ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion — The Drum Within keeps many ducks in tidy rows through a maze of gritty en­coun­ters, bit­ter con­fronta­tions, and some very clever red her­rings. At that, Scarantino, of Port Townsend, Wash­ing­ton, should know whereof he writes. He has been a pros­e­cu­tor, de­fense at­tor­ney, and in­ves­tiga­tive reporter be­fore turn­ing to the mys­tery genre, and his writ­ing has very few ragged edges.

Print and me­dia jour­nal­ists do not al­ways come off very kindly in this work, by the way. But then, nei­ther do judges, at­tor­neys, or govern­ment of­fi­cials. The pre­ten­tious gratin of Santa Fe’s arch art scene gets some wicked and apro­pos smacks as well.

Though Aragon is sup­posed to be the pro­tag­o­nist — the book’s pub­lic­ity says The Drum Within is “A Denise Aragon Novel #1” — Scarantino brings in many mul­ti­ple view­points early on. The re­sult is the kind of novel in which the reader is a par­tic­i­pant through con­fi­dences but never an om­ni­scient one: I found my­self pop-eyed in sur­prise as the plot worked it­self out. But the book never over­reaches; ev­ery­thing that oc­curs ul­ti­mately makes sense, which is one of the sever­est tests of a mys­tery novel.

For a Santa Fean, it’s fun to fol­low the plot along as it takes the char­ac­ters through­out down­town, up into the Hyde Park area, off into the rich north hills, over onto the west and south sides, in and out of po­lice sta­tions and court­houses — not to men­tion up near Glo­ri­eta, off into the near-track­less wilds around Grants, and on a grue­some de­tour down near So­corro. With Aragon as a com­pan­ion, the trip is worth it. — Craig A. Smith

James R. Scarantino reads from “The Drum Within” at 6 p.m. on Thurs­day, March 24, at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988- 4226).

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