Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Yes, I've been reading a lot of books recently. Two reasons: they've been pretty slim books, and they've been pretty easily readable. I'm almost done another one, in fact, but after that, they get longer.

Dry Heat by Jon Talton. 213 pages, 2004, Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press.

Jon Talton is a business columnist for the Arizona Republic (well, he was - today his final column was printed, so I guess he's making good money from this novelist gig), and in his work for the newspaper, he has often talked about how Phoenix has failed to take advantage of its natural advantages and allowed real estate vultures to take over and spread the sprawl that has, in my mind, destroyed this area (I know I've only lived here for less than six years, but occasionally I get glimpses of what it was like before the sprawl, and it seems like it might have been pleasant). It's no different in this novel (set in Phoenix), which is the third starring his creation, David Mapstone, a professor who works for the sheriff's department solving crimes. This is ostensibly a murder mystery, a very "cold case" (the murder occurred in 1948), but it allows Talton to wax nostalgic about a Phoenix that no longer exists and one which, from the narrative, he would very much like to return to, possibly in some sort of time machine.

As a murder mystery, there needs to be a murder. Mapstone, as a historian, is assigned by Sheriff Mike Peralta - a very thinly-veiled Joe Arpaio - to a strange case that comes up. A homeless man is found floating in a swimming pool with an FBI badge sewn into his jacket. The badge belonged to John Pilgrim, who died in 1948. The FBI said it was suicide, but Mapstone discovers pretty easily that it was murder. So what connection does the homeless man have to Pilgrim? Meanwhile, Mapstone's wife, Lindsey, who recently cracked a credit-card fraud scheme run by the Russian Mafia, is targeted for death, and the FBI and Peralta have to protect her. So there's a strange old case to be solved, but there's also a present-day problem.

Talton does a good job keeping both of these storylines cooking, even though it's clear early on that one doesn't have anything to do with the other. Neither is really good enough to sustain an entire book, however, so it's a good thing that he has both. The Russian Mafia story is just to add a nice element of danger as well as throw up barriers blocking any quiet time Mapstone and Lindsey get to have. They get stashed in a safe house, but when that is compromised, the FBI hides Lindsey even from her husband. The story also allows Talton to write a high-speed chase through the streets of Scottsdale. A sixty-year-old murder investigation wouldn't give him that opportunity!

Talton does a nice job showing how Mapstone goes about solving the mystery, despite his anxiety over being separated from Lindsey and the often contrary attitude of his boss, Peralta, and the FBI. They don't want him digging too deeply into Pilgrim's life, because although he was a great agent, he was a mess personally, and had many potentially embarrassing problems. Mapstone goes around trying to discover the identity of the homeless man (who died of natural causes) and what, if any, connection he had to Pilgrim. Mapstone's methodical progress is handled well, as Talton shows us all the connections he's making as he works his way toward an answer. It's nice to see a detective novel that follows the hero each step of the way, without springing surprises on us. Everything Mapstone does is perfectly logical and follows after the previous step. Talton compresses some of the research Mapstone does, but he brings us up to speed well, and we always know as much as Mapstone, which is a nice sign of a "fair-play" mystery, which this bears resemblance to.

Unfortunately, Mapstone's discovery of what happened to Pilgrim ultimately comes a it out of nowhere. He notices an important clue that has not been mentioned before. At least I don't think it was, and I've looked at some of the relevant pages. It certainly doesn't come completely out of left field, and once Mapstone explains, it makes sense, but it bugged me, because it would have taken one sentence to make it a good clue and make us smack our head because we didn't make the connection. It's an intriguing yet mundane solution, but it fits in with everything that has come before and explains why Pilgrim died and how a homeless man ended up with his badge. It's just a bit frustrating that it wasn't telegraphed more with a clue. Oh well.

As I mentioned, the book is fine as a murder mystery, but it really works as a travel guide to Phoenix and a glimpse into the city's past. I'm actually interested in driving to the various locations in the book, because Talton does such a good job describing them (and giving street names). The places I recognized elicited a figurative nod of the head, as I understood what he was saying about them. It's a very neat drive through the topography of Phoenix, and when Talton writes about the Phoenix of the 1940s or even the 1960s, it's fascinating to compare it with the city of today, which has sold its soul for economic expansion. Talton obviously loves the city as it once was, and hopes the leaders of the city will steer it in a better direction. Even if you don't live in Phoenix, the book is remarkable in that it manages to give you a wonderful sense of location, in both the present and the past. If you're interested in reading about the actual feel of Phoenix rather than what guide books say, this is a great place to start. Plus, there's a story!

It's a quick book to read, and although the story isn't great, it's serviceable, and it allows Talton to delve into history and give us some pretty good characterization. He has a knack of fleshing out characters quickly, which is helpful in a book like this. It's a nice way to kill a few days, and it's worth reading just for the sense of place Talton gives us. The body of the homeless man is discovered on 1 April, and Mapstone can already feel the heat of the Phoenix summer approaching. As I type these words on 1 April, I know how he feels. Dry Heat gives us a nice little mystery and an interesting tour through a city that could be a lot more "real" than it is. It's a wistful book in many ways, because it mourns a city that was once a much nicer place. But that's progress, right?

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