In the first of the Manny Rivera Mystery series, a collection of rare, valuable Native American pottery leads to deceit and murder.
Deputy Sheriff Manny Rivera is assigned to the case of a ranch hand found with a bullet hole in his head. The deputy, desperate to make up for a previously botched stakeout gig, tracks clues and hopes to solve the murder before the profitable tourist season in Moab, Utah, takes a hit. The killer, meanwhile, is trying to sell Native American artifacts that are apparently worth shooting someone for. He obtained the pottery illegally, on a ranch run by a man who, unbeknownst to Manny, found the body first and moved it to protect a secret. Curtin’s debut novel is easily labeled a murder mystery, but it’s more about the investigation than the whodunit, especially since the killer’s identity and motive are never a mystery. The real question is why Paul, the ranch foreman, drove the body far away from the ranch, a mystery that the author smartly keeps concealed until the end. Manny’s investigation consists mostly of interviews, but following along with the deputy is utterly absorbing and gratifying since he’s essentially the underdog; his intentions are to make amends for his last case and make an impression on the sheriff. Such drive makes Manny refreshingly modest; he’s more critical of his mistakes than anyone else. The same likable qualities are, surprisingly, also shown in Frank, the man who kills the ranch hand. His discharge from the Army is followed by a succession of tedious jobs, and he’s treated poorly by his current employer. A sympathetic person, he’s a man whose greed is a character flaw, not a defining trait, and he clearly feels regret over the murder. Curtin’s descriptions of arid Moab are poetic: a mesa “sliced by a labyrinth of rugged canyons,” the “exquisite silence” of the high desert country and the “plumes of dust” Frank sees as he spots his buyer from afar. Unfortunately, one mystery—the genuine identity of the murdered man—isn’t answered, although perhaps that’s for another Manny Rivera tale.
Perceptive storytelling energized by an admirable protagonist and refined prose.