Santa Fe Mourning is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in 1920s New Mexico. This setting caught my eye because while the time period is a familiar one for murder mysteries, I was intrigued by the Southwestern locale which I haven’t seen done before in a historical setting.
Allen’s protagonist, Madeline Vaughn-Alwin, has come from a wealthy background but after her husband dies in the First World War she settles in Santa Fe where she works as an artist to her family’s disapproval. There she has established a circle of friends and built a home.
The novel begins with Maddie returning home by train after a trip to New York. At the station she is met by Eddie, the son of the Native American couple she employs as her gardener and cook. He has some bruising on his face and she soon hears that relations between Eddie and his father have deteriorated, the latter having become increasingly erratic in his behavior, while she was away and that his mother is contemplating sending his sisters away to a convent school.
Soon Tomas Anaya is discovered dead near a speakeasy, covered with blood from what looks to have been a brutal beating. Eddie is arrested on suspicion of murdering his father and Maddie, feeling sorry for the family, decides to intervene to try to comfort them and make sure that Eddie is not mistreated or wrongly convicted for a crime she cannot believe he would have committed.
This brings me to the aspect of the book that I responded to most positively: that Maddie becomes involved not because she wants to snoop or out of a sense of danger, though she does exhibit a little of the latter as she gets deeper into the case, but because she has compassion for the family who live and work with her.
This is shown in the initial actions that she takes of trying to work out a way to expedite the release of the corpse to the family so that they can carry out the funeral rites and finding a lawyer to help Eddie come home to his family. What makes this approach feel so refreshing to me was because it feels truthful, simple and organic. I also appreciated the way it establishes and develops the novel’s central theme about how we experience and react to great losses because Maddie’s experience of losing her husband is part of what drives her to act.
Allen’s focus on that theme was, for me, the most successful aspect of the novel and I was fascinated by the various examples of characters who have suffered some loss and experience a rebirth or a new sense of purpose. In some cases this plays out quite subtly such as Maddie herself because when the novel begins she is already part way through that journey – in others it can be quite dramatic as when we learn more about the Anaya family’s past. This is variations on a theme but done very well with each subplot complementing the others.
Another aspect of the book that I think is successful is the author’s attention to historical and cultural details which feels authentic and quite on point. Some may quibble about the level of freedom that Maddie has at times, though I think Allen does address that by having her seek out her best friend to serve as a chaperone for some of the adventure. I do think that the background of the story feels very well conceived and I appreciated that she is able to give us some real locations and individuals without making it feel like a research project.
Unfortunately as much as I appreciated the themes and the setting, I cannot be quite so glowing about the novel as a piece of mystery fiction.
To be clear, I think the book is an entertaining read and I think the plot is clever and I appreciate that it is clearly developed out of the novel’s setting but there is little in the way of misdirection. Part of this reflects that the author spends a lot of time establishing the character and the dynamics of her household and circle of friends but I think the bigger problem is that almost all of the characters are ruled out as suspects from the beginning.
Even if you do work out the murderer’s identity you do still need to figure out how and why this has happened but here, once again, I think the attentive reader will be able to infer the solution quite early in the novel. This is a pity because there are some good ideas here and I think one aspect of the solution is quite neatly set up and revealed but I think the story would have benefited from devoting a little more time to building up the alternative killers.
While this frustrates me, I will say that this was not a deal killer. I found the book entertaining and enjoyed its setting and the way the author developed her ideas. I also liked that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, setting up a second volume nicely should this one prove to be a success. My hope is though that when that one does come out that a little more time will be given over to creating red herrings and alternative suspects to beef up the mystery element of the novel.
For those who like a dash of adventure in their mystery fiction or stories set in this time period or area of the world, I do think there is quite a lot to enjoy here.