Schaeffer Brown's Observations: Santa Fe
by Candace Katz
The Bunny and Crocodile Press, ©2010,175 Pages
A Review by Natalie Lobe
Candace Katz’s second Schaeffer Brown mystery plunges right into the plot when Schaeffer, a private investigator, receives a telephone call in her Arlington, VA office.
A one-time college friend, E.J.(Elizabeth Jane Lowell), who is now director of a research center for artists and scholars in Santa Fe, is desperate to find an ancient bowl that was just stolen from the center. Schaeffer is desperate for a new client to satisfy the demands of a new boss so the deal is made. To keep the theft from becoming public, thus jeopardizing E.J.’s shaky standing as a competent director, Schaeffer arrives in Santa Fe in the guise of a visiting scholar named Schaeffer Carnell, grand niece of once renowned surrealist painter. By the time she arrives, a murder has been committed, seemingly related to the earlier crime.
A Navaho docent who was familiar with the stolen artifact has been mortally wounded at the site of the theft. The chase for thief and murderer takes Schaeffer and a small entourage connected to the museum through Indian pueblos, old western towns and the Chaco canyon. It brings us in close contact with the conflicts of the Hispanic and Navaho cultures and the intrigues of an artistic community.
What makes this mystery stand apart in the genre is its fast pace, the New Mexico setting and the delightful quotations which appear at the beginning of each chapter and come out of the mouth of the feisty but well educated Schaeffer Brown. Each of the main characters has his or her distinctive, sometimes sinister or seductive features. Believing that the docent’s husband who is a Navaho astronomer and archeologist might be involved, Schaeffer and her group try to find him. Each stop lasts long enough to advance the pursuit, introduce more action and new characters who are out to stop the search. Schaeffer is attacked three times. The last time the entire search body is bound together and left to die in the canyon. The action rarely lulls and when it does we are rewarded with a bit of domestic relief at the little inn at Chaco run by retired artists who treat the travelers to delicious food and extravagant hospitality.
Throughout, Katz creates wonderful descriptive details of New Mexico’s landscape, towns and the Navaho settlements. Her depiction of Santa Fe’s plaza brought back memories of my own visit there: “…We turned two short corners and up on my right came the unexpected and wonderful view of the Santa Fe Plaza, a grassy rectangle, criss-crossed with paths, ringed on all sides with two-story adobe buildings. Within the plaza, scattered throughout on the grass were wrought-iron benches, anchored by a painted white gazebo at the center…… For the first time I began to understand viscerally that :North America was not colonized only by pale-complected Congregationalists.” Each chapter begins with a relevant quotation. The sources of these quips range from Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sherlock Holmes and Allen Ginsberg. They add a good deal of zip to the reading experience. One of my favorites is, “Don’t count your chickens until you actually have your hands around their necks,” beginning a chapter in which the search party finally finds Simon’s cabin only to be captured and bound by the attackers and left to the wild animals. So despite the bruises and bangs story is filled with light touches.
The main characters stand in sharp contrast to one another. Schaeffer, bold beyond imagination and trained in T’ai Chi takes on each attacker with skilled defense and a sturdy heart. Still, she has self doubts and does make questionable judgments. E.J., who directs the Center and hired Schaeffer, is beholden to her wealthy parents who’s family trust operates the Center. When the bowl is stolen she fears for her job. Further, her outreach to the Native American community has not been embraced by some of her staff.
Schaeffer’s search party includes Ned Gardner, Director of Collections at the Center. He’s both enigmatic and sexually attractive to Schaeffer. Two others associated with the Center have imposed themselves on the party: Dr. Walter Scroggins, who is elderly and obsessed with youth and Veronica Rutherford, who is officious and arrogant. As the plot develops any one of these characters might be responsible for the crimes. The suspense, then never ends until the end when the true villains almost have their way.
Natalie Lobe’s poetry collection, Connected Voices was published in 2006, Island in Time in 2008. Her most recent publications are in Iconclast, Comstock Review and Little Patuxent Review. Ms Lobe is Poet in the Schools for the State of Maryland and Anne Arundel County and a reviewer for The Montserrat Review.