In Other Words South of Nowhere by Minerva Koenig and A Country Road, A Tree
When last we left Julia Kalas, a semi-reformed criminal living in the fictional central Texas town of Azula and protagonist of Minerva Koenig’s 2014 debut novel, Nine Days (Minotaur), she was wrestling with the conflict between her natural desire to solve mysteries and her deep aversion to law enforcement. In Koenig’s follow-up, South of Nowhere, Julia is as acerbic as ever, and her talents are being actively sought by the local police force and a private investigator. They don’t know too many details about her past and don’t much care. She’s that good at sleuthing, though lately Julia’s private shame is that her brain, which loves puzzles, seems to be on the fritz. She has been experiencing time loss: One moment she is looking at a dead body found buried under the floor of her new fixer-upper farmhouse, and the next she is standing outside, with no memory of the minutes in between.
Julia gets roped into a case that sends her to Mexico with the private dick; he’s on the hunt for a missing woman who went south of the border for a tummy tuck and never came back. Along the way, they spend the night at a Buddhist retreat on the border and, after some intrigue in Juárez, wind up reentering the U.S. by way of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a community to which Julia turns out to have strong ties. We learn about her childhood and the root causes of her cynicism, which are connected to her bouts of dissociation. Parallel to this, the missing woman turns out to be connected to the body in the floorboards. As the plot thickens, so do the psychological and spiritual elements of the story, with Julia attempting to address whatever is going on with her brain, less out of an interest in her inner demons and more out of a sense of self-preservation, which tends to be her primary motivation in all things.
Koenig has such a contemporary and multicultural outlook on the world that what is most gripping is not the specific mysteries she has Julia pursue, but rather their context. Her environment is rural borderland, highlighting and humanizing people who are often automatically the bad guys in genre mystery novels or made to seem foreign, exotic — or backwater — for the sake of dramatic tension, through a very Anglo-centric lens. Koenig acknowledges that lens and attempts to move as far beyond it as she can. She also creates a complex psychological portrait of Julia. Tough as she is, she’s not indestructible, but she doesn’t lose her edge as she learns more about herself. Koenig never presents Julia’s compounded and complex traumatic experiences as easy to unravel. Readers who have been down similar roads will likely appreciate revisiting the early part of that journey.
Julia is reminiscent in many ways of the character of Mary Shannon, a federal marshal for the witness protection program on the defunct USA Network series In Plain Sight, which was shot in Albuquerque. Both women are quick to anger and prone to acting before thinking, but Julia doesn’t indulge in any poetic voice-over, and she has zero hindsight. When we leave her, she has suddenly and profoundly transformed her life and is attempting to overhaul her mind. Whether or not she can change her nature remains to be seen. — Jennifer Levin