J.J. Rusz

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J J RUSZ is the author of the Big Bend Country Mysteries—focusing on crime, intrigue, and good-humored romance in Far West Texas. The first of the books THE WINDOW TRAIL was named Texas Authors 2019 Best Mystery/Thriller. The series has expanded with the publication of THE SOUTH RIM TRAIL.

Rusz is the pen name of John J Ruszkiewicz, who was born in Cleveland, earned a PhD at The Ohio State University, and subsequently taught literature and composition at the University of Texas at Austin for forty years. Before the Big Bend Country Mysteries, he wrote or co-authored best-selling college textbooks, including EVERYTHING'S AN ARGUMENT, HOW TO WRITE ANYTHING, and THE SCOTT, FORESMAN HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS.

He spends most of his time now in Brewster County, Texas, enjoying its dark skies, creative people, and proximity to Big Bend National Park.



BY J.J. Rusz

Movie actors, mobsters, a suspicious death, and an unexpected romance enliven a Texas town.

In his uneven but enjoyable fourth installment of a mystery series, Rusz returns readers to Brewster County, Texas, and its growing cast of colorful characters headed by handsome Sheriff Clayton Shoot. Written in a lighter vein than previous volumes of the series, the book blends family secrets and a down-home version of Shakespearean romantic intrigue with a film crew and a questionable crime. Did wealthy ranch owner Tilda Quigg die from a fall down the stairs, or did her local political nemesis, the sheriff’s prickly, outspoken older sister, Beatrice, push her? Townsfolk are whispering. And why is Tilda’s live-in ranch manager, Buck Anderson, talking to seedy mobsters about plans to turn her huge spread into an adult entertainment destination? But the mystery (and its underwhelming midnovel surprise) takes a back seat to dueling matchmakers’ efforts to get Clayton and one-time girlfriend Claire Harp back together and to convince sharp-tongued Beatrice and equally brusque, retired Master Sgt. Benny Peyton that they belong together, à la Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.As in previous installments, apart from the series opener, The Window Trail (2018), perpetually blushing Clayton and indecisive English professor Claire’s cooling-to-moribund relationship is the least intriguing element. Readers will be much more excited about the hapless gangsters, bumptious Beatrice, and the attraction between the story’s most appealing characters: loner cowboy Loris Garrett and Belinda Briggs, a smitten young Hollywood actor. She and movie star Marlo Hansbury,who has Clayton in her sights, are among a trio of actors on hand for romance and hookups while in town shooting a film based on the recent homicide that occurred in the county (chronicled in The Lost Mine Trail, 2020). Throughout, the author once again demonstrates his series’ greatest strength: a deeply informed depiction of the sprawling Texas setting, from town and ranch life to rugged, two-rut roads and “gorges and canyons, plains and moonscapes, mountains pressing upon mountains, like they were sliding out of sight.”

An engaging mystery in a vivid setting with offbeat characters and a sense of fun.

Pub Date:

Page count: 380pp

Publisher: manuscript

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2023



BY J.J. Rusz • POSTED ON Dec. 17, 2020

A Texas sheriff copes with murder, attempted murder, and a returning ex-girlfriend in this third mystery series installment.

Clayton Shoot, now sheriff of Brewster County, Texas, isn’t expecting to have to deal with more than the usual rowdy crop of tourists in the area during spring break. That changes when the headliner for an annual cowboy poetry event is murdered, two septuagenarians are attacked on the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, and Clayton’s former girlfriend, college professor Claire Harp, is back in town after a book tour and a walk on the red carpet with her 18-year-old, Oscar-winning brother. In this latest book in the enjoyable Big Bend Country Mystery series, Rusz again places fresh characters and inventive, parallel plots in the sprawling and diverse Trans-Pecos region of Texas with the deft touch of someone who knows the area well. Among the author’s returning, lively cast members are newly minted deputy sheriff Alonso Rangel, 24, and his 40-ish wife, police chief Fiona Tusk-Rangel, who was once a thorn in Clayton’s side but is now mellowed by marriage and impending motherhood; attack victims Ella Danton Nixon, who’s an anti-fracking, pro-gun screenwriter, and her dour husband, Barney; Clayton’s matchmaking sister, Beatrice Shoot; chief ranger Velma Furcron at Big Bend National Park; and FBI special agent Lee Perciak. New faces include wealthy businessman Andrew Crane, who’s oddly interested in Ella and Barney’s radical activism in the 1960s. Unexpectedly, the reasons behind Ella’s strange reaction to her own assault and the near-fatal assault on Barney come to light early on; so does a revelation from a surprising source in regard to the event. Unusually for a mystery, Rusz also doesn’t keep the primary culprit, or their motives, secret. A country singer’s fate may be rooted in the past, as well; the author informs readers of that motive for murder with genuine pathos. Meanwhile, Clayton and Claire’s mutual interest in solving the mysteries hints that a spark remains between them—and that a fourth book may be in the offing.

A thoroughly entertaining tale in an authentic setting that’s as colorful as its characters.

Pub Date: Dec. 17, 2020

ISBN: 979-8-58-309725-8

Page count: 264pp

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Feb. 12, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021



BY J.J. Rusz • POSTED ON Sept. 27, 2019

A young sheriff’s life is complicated by a conflicted girlfriend, a teenage TV star, and a murdered artist in the second book in Rusz’s (The Window Trail, 2019) Big Bend Country Mystery series.

Professor Claire Harp’s 18-year-old brother, Alex Harp, is the star of a television sitcom who’s just about to launch a film career. He’s visiting her in West Texas, accompanied by his friend Piper Robinet, who plays his love interest on the TV show. Alex wants to camp overnight with Piper in Big Bend National Park, but their public relations people soon turn their hike on the South Rim Trail into a media event. Later that night, however, Piper goes missing from the campsite; it soon becomes clear that the circumstances of her disappearance could also help investigators determine who killed an artist some time ago, who’d been painting in the park. Potential perpetrators include drug runners or, closer to home, the artist’s stepdaughter and an ambitious young photographer. Once again, Claire’s boyfriend, the handsome and stalwart Sheriff Clayton Shoot, is seeing the case through by interacting with colorful locals and sorting through various clues with other law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, he and Alex bond at Clayton’s family ranch, where the actor is staying to avoid his fans and members of the press. Clayton’s abrasive older sister, Beatrice, bonds with Alex, too, over their mutual interest in his upcoming starring role in a film production of Romeo and Juliet

Puzzlingly, Claire has a less active and less sympathetic role in this series entry; in the first, she helped Clayton solve a brutal crime. Here, she wrestles with her mixed emotions about Clayton—he proposed, she refused—and wonders whether to move on in her life as she fields job offers from prestigious publishers and universities. She’s certain that Clayton, who’s now the sheriff of the largest county in Texas, is too deeply invested to ever want to leave it. Their relationship issues thread through the novel, and the author eventually gives Claire an epiphany, only to abruptly undercut it in the book’s last scene—an overly obvious setup for the next book. Claire also spends an inordinate and off-putting amount of time trying to determine if Alex is gay. For the most part, though, the novel is an appealingly nimble, character-driven tale, deepened by the author’s informed, eloquent recreation of the series’ far–West Texas setting, where a switchback is described as “lined by rocks that might have dropped from the moon” and the “sweeping panoramas of distant mountains and flat fields of skeletal bushes” are said to be “freaky, brutal, yet oddly beautiful.” A sighting of a sheeplike “aoudad” may send readers to the encyclopedia. The cast is as diverse as the locale is: Claire, Clayton, Alex, and Piper are among the white characters; Piper’s boyfriend, Tyler Tribble, and Chief Ranger Velma Furcron are African-American; a minor teenage character named Gracie Allen Yazzie is Navajo; and Clayton’s deputy, Alonso Rangel, is Hispanic.

A well-paced mystery with an authentic setting and numerous engaging characters.

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-69478-366-0

Page count: 273pp

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2019



BY J.J. Rusz • POSTED ON July 4, 2019

In this series opener, a gruesome murder with far-reaching consequences unsettles a Texas town and brings together an attractive college professor and a young lawman intent on solving the case.

Before professor Claire Harp came to the state university in Alpine, Texas, a sophomore called Mote McCrary hiked up the Window Trail into the mountains of Big Bend National Park and leaped off a cliff. Mote’s professor and mentor, Michael Kincaid, subsequently rocked the publishing world with a much-lauded book based on conversations with the teen. The site of Mote’s death became a destination for young devotees of Kincaid’s literary triumph. When two of them persuade Claire to take them there, it turns out to be a distressing trip, made more disturbing on the way back when a coyote passes by with a woman’s hand in its mouth. Claire and Capt. Clayton Alton Shoot from the sheriff’s office find the rest of the remains the next day in a remote area of a wealthy rancher’s property. The dead woman turns out to be a part-time tech assistant at the university, notorious for her multiple affairs. The attraction between Claire and Clayton grows; meanwhile, the solution to the murder, obscured by an abundance of motives, is complicated by Alpine’s overly ambitious chief of police. Claire also finds herself on the trail of a second mystery that may or may not be related to the brutal crime. Rusz (How To Write Anything, 2019, etc.) deftly gives his characters substance and weaves humor and poignancy into escalating plot twists and turns. (Even the revelation of the perpetrator’s identity doesn’t quite lead where expected in the aftermath.) And the author, who clearly knows the territory, brings alive the book’s setting, the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, where readers can picture “a silhouette of mountains, purple and black against a sky that would not quite disappear, the horizon a bazaar of volcanic tents and towers” and the “northern fingers of the Chihuahuan desert reaching into Far West Texas.”

An absorbing, well-crafted mystery alive with colorful, substantive characters in a vivid setting.

Pub Date: July 4, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-72242-487-9

Page count: 284pp

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

Awards, Press & Interests

Day job


Favorite author

Tony Hillerman

Favorite book


Favorite line from a book

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? (from Twelfth Night)

Favorite word


THE WINDOW TRAIL: Texas Authors Best Mystery/Thriller , 2019

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