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.
“An absorbing, well-crafted mystery alive with colorful, substantive characters in a vivid setting.”
– Kirkus Reviews
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
Page count: 273pp
Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 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
Page count: 284pp
Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019
Craig Johnson, SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT
Favorite line from a book
Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? (from Twelfth Night)
THE WINDOW TRAIL: Texas Authors Best Mystery/Thriller , 2019
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