"Dark Reservations" (Minotaur Books), by John Fortunato
Politics, greed and Native American artifacts provide a sturdy foundation for the compelling debut by John Fortunato, the latest winner of the Tony Hillerman prize.
The Hillerman Prize is awarded annually to a debut author whose crime fiction honors the work of the late Hillerman and utilizes a Southwest setting.
"Dark Reservations" is a worthy addition to this prize as it delivers a highly entertaining, multilayered plot steeped in the culture of the Southwest and laden with believable characters. Fortunato constructs the novel with a series of vignettes — some only a page in length — from the points of view of myriad characters. These many episodes work as each scene, no matter how short or who is the focus, carefully interlocks with the next and adds to the plot's intrigue while also maintaining focus on the novel's main character, Joe Evers.
Joe, an agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is three months away from a forced retirement, the result of a botched case that has lost him the respect of his colleagues and supervisors who consider him "a walking mess." His depression and drinking brought on because of his wife's death has only intensified. But he has one final case — "Clear it and you go out big," his supervisor tells him.
The remains of a car belonging to New Mexico Congressman Arlen Edgerton, who disappeared in 1988, have just been uncovered in a remote area of the Navajo reservation. Rumors of corruption, missing money and infidelity have swirled for decades about Edgerton, who vanished with his secretary, Faye Hannaway, and his driver, Nicholas Garcia.
The reopened case may have ramifications for a variety of people — Edgerton's widow, Grace, now a leading candidate in the governor's race; William Tom, the former Navajo Nation president; Kendall Holmes, an influential senator; and Arthur Othmann, a wealthy, unscrupulous art collector.
Fortunato weaves in a look at the black market trade in Indian artifacts and the Navajo culture in his briskly paced novel. Joe proves to be a thoughtful, tenacious investigator who relearns to trust his instincts during the case. He must prove himself to his co-workers — and, more important, to himself.
"Dark Reservations" starts what should be a long-running series.