BORDERLAND RANCH by James E.  Merrima


Death and Salvation in the Desert
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Vacationers at an Arizona dude ranch become rattled by unsavory guests, including one who turns up dead, in this mystery.

Fay Merrill has an array of visitors at her five-star Borderland Ranch, from hedge fund manager Alexander J. Randolph III to fashion model Katlin Carmichael. But one guest has no interest in any of the ranch activities. As assistant director of Homeland Security, Bobby Reynolds is supervising an operation to intercept an al-Qaida bomb maker. There could be a connection to Syrian brothers Ahmed Al Diri and Toad (a nickname courtesy of wrangler Brooke Bennett), two other ranch guests who have a secret “mission.” The brothers are certainly peculiar (at the ranch to photograph horses, they tend to aim their cameras at Brooke instead), but surprisingly, Bobby stirs up the most trouble. Several people recognize him from previous encounters over the years that haven’t left them with fond memories of the assistant director. When Fay stumbles on a corpse in one of the cabins, it’s unquestionably murder, and soon FBI agents are knocking on the door. With all the bad blood at the ranch, there’s no shortage of suspects, particularly once a few people suddenly vanish. Though much of Merriman’s (Missing in Bocas, 2016, etc.) tale plays like a soap opera, a solid mystery is prevalent throughout. Many characters, for example, have intriguing and thorny backstories: Divorced Fay is estranged from her daughter, while Katlin, though only 25, is evidently not “edgy” enough for modeling gigs. The author deftly draws in readers further with curious plot turns not immediately clarified, such as why guest Reggie Van den Berg nearly assaults Bobby. But some elements of the characters are repetitious: Run-ins involving Bobby and alcohol are both a current and past problem. Nevertheless, the story’s consistent momentum is boosted by amusing snippets: A distressed Fay wonders if vodka will provide “magical insight.” Perhaps best of all, the book’s strongest, most remarkable characters are chiefly female.

A motley assortment of individuals truly ignites the plot in this whodunit.

Page count: 184pp
Publisher: CreateSpace
Program: Kirkus Indie
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