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Scott Driscoll reviews Murdock Tackles Taos by Robert J. Ray

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Guest Post by Scott Driscoll: Scott Driscoll holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies, including American Fiction ’88, Cimarron Review, Crosscurrents, Gulfstream, Image Magazine, Poets and Writers Magazine, The Seattle ReviewThe South Dakota Review, and others. His narrative essay about his daughter’s coming of age was cited in the Best American Essays, 1998, and while in the MFA program, he won the University of Washington’s Milliman Award for Fiction (1989).

Scott’s debut novel, Better You Go Home, is forthcoming from Coffeetown Press in September, 2013.

A Surprising Feast

Helene Steinbeck is in Taos, New Mexico to plug her latest novel at a writer’s conference.  But in Murdock Tackles Taos, a murder mystery by Robert Ray (Camel Press, 328 pages, $16.95, out June 15, 2013), Helene leads a more thrilling life than most writers. Hiking up Angel Mountain, Helene only misses becoming the target of a high-powered arrow when a stranger garbed in green camos slams her to the ground. Actually, she falls onto a still warm corpse, the latest victim of a local crime syndicate whose twisted boss, Theo Ulster, a Brit with “Special Air Services” training, “tougher than most army rangers,” sublimates a fetish for mother-lust into ritualized pack hunts for unusual prey.

There’s more, of course.  A menu of model-pretty female tennis pros offered for puerile sport.  White slavery.  There is no depravity, it seems, that Ulster’s band of archers has left untried.  None of which—no horror, no matter how gruesome—slows down our hero.  Murdock.  Sleuth for hire.  And, you guessed it, Helene’s savior in camos.

If you’re looking for a tight-lipped Elliot Ness going after baddies with a Doberman-like focus, you won’t find it here.  This is more Gary Cooper in High Noon, a loveable loner with a wry humor, much tenderness for the fairer sex, an unflappable exterior, and, perhaps most notably, an un-erodible belief that exposing corruption is worth any risk—if the pay is right.

Murdock, the revitalized hero of Ray’s earlier murder mystery series, is in Taos on a mission.  Find the missing daughter of an “old Army pal.” As luck would have it, Helene, a creative writing dropout, settled into a career as a detective.  They join forces on this quest and the expectant reader is rewarded with lubricious sex culminating in the kind of respect that makes you want to like the tough guy all the more: “Murdock…gave himself up to her…felt her magic, her mystery.  She was Mother Nature in all her earth-fire force.”

Trouble is, Ulster’s band of archers has no patience for romance.  Before even our heroes divine the full depth of Ulster’s depravity, the reader is treated to a ceremony.  “Silence kept them focused… welded them together in a sacred space where the only act was a ritual older than civilization.” In one of the more gruesome scenes in the novel, the reader has a gallery view as a drugged teen tennis player, surrounded by men and women wearing “robes, masks, and white latex gloves,” engage in “the delicate dance of death.” The victim’s crime? She is a “Lookalike.” She resembles Ulster’s mother, who molested the young-monster-to-be when he was young.

The action heats when our heroes themselves become prey in one of Ulster’s hunts.  But, don’t worry, the search for the missing girl has not been abandoned.  Without giving the ending away, suffice it to say even Murdock can still be “amazed.”  “This woman [Helene] had been battered, bruised, abused, raped, wounded, driven close to death—and yet…”

Ray delivers a hero you want for a pal.  Romance balanced on the knife-edge of danger.  A hunter’s view of the hills outside of Taos.  Bad guys profiting from macabre perversions.  This is a nerve-tingling story.

Packed between the opening’s deadly arrows and the ending’s battle in court, there is enough action to keep you on edge.  You’ll come away hungry for more of this Murdock.

Discloser:  Scott has a forthcoming book with Coffeetown Press. Camel Press is an imprint of same.

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Written by Caleb Powell

June 26, 2013 at 5:10 pm

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