Frank Hayes is a gifted detective writer, a master of mesmerizing plot. The plot moves forward without losing focus, even though it proceeds in unexpected circles. These expertly digressive circles embody the dizzy feel of the landscape found in New Mexico and Arizona. The exact locale of the town of Haywood where the action occurs is not specific but emblematic. As with Willa Cather’s western novels the landscape is luminous.
Virgil Dalton, half-Navaho, is a sheriff of immense integrity. In many ways Hayes is the successor to the late Tony Hillerman, yet Hayes possesses the disarming ability to portray fuller, rounder characters, both male and female. This novel features a female sidekick, Marian. Her father has been tossed from a bridge, muttering farewell to a love he will never see again, yet he survives the fall as he is nursed by a young Hispanic named Ernesto.
Virgil discovers a daughter he did not know he had sired. Marian’s knowledge of the countryside (its plants, streams, fickle weather, rocks and caves) excels even the sheriff’s familiarity, partly because she had been abandoned to roam the wild countryside as a young child. And she can ride a horse better than the pick-up-truck driving sheriff. Hayes knows horses: how they move, sweat, gallop, race, and emotionally react to people.
Gargantuan ironies appear natural, like the one where Virgil rides a horse for an hour to send a text message that is answered within a minute, resulting in the dispatch of a helicopter. I don’t believe in disclosing plot spoilers, so all I can say is that Hayes is also a master of suspense. And unlike many writers in this genre, there is nothing phony about his deep characters and their emotions or thoughts. This story has many surprises that come together in a fine ending.
I thoroughly enjoyed his first novel, Death at the Black Bull, but this one is a step above.
Frank Hayes was a high school teacher who has begun a new career as a novelist. He lives just ten minutes from Millbrook.
TMI reader Vernece Seager lives in New Paltz, N.Y.