Destination: Southern Arizona
Book: White Heat by Brenda Novak (NEW August 2010)
What fun to read a novel set in a place I am very familiar with.[amazon_link id="0778327957" target="_blank" ] White Heat[/amazon_link], the first in a triology of romance mysteries by the prolific Brenda Novak, takes place in the far southeastern corner of Arizona. The towns of Portal and Paradise really do exist on the edge of the Chiricahua Mountains, not far west of the New Mexico-Arizona border.
Paradise, nearly deserted, once was a mining town.I wrote an essay for Arizona Highways about the Paradise Cemetery and how it is just about as hard to get buried in Paradise as to get into that other Paradise. Since the mines petered out, the area attracts scientists who study the sky-island bio system, birders who hope to spot the rare elegant trogan, or even rarer Mexican parrots who migrate up from Central American. Some people who live around here just want to get away from civilization.
Because some serious science goes on in the Cave Creek Canyon through the cleft in the mountains where birds and animals migrate north in winter, and lush growth along steep ridges makes the area beautiful, many of the scientists stick around after they retire, and the I.Q. level here is probably higher than in just about any ghost town you’ve ever visited. Professors strap tiny transmitters to rattlesnakes bellies to learn about their wandering, intrepid biologists poke around in caves looking for bats, and interns spend the summer counting toads. You can learn more about the fauna of the area at the site of the George Walker B & B where we stayed for a few idyllic days many years ago. (The two towns are surrounded by national forest service and you will not have a problem finding a place to sleep outdoors if you prefer.)
Although the population of Cave Creek consists more of scientists at the American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station than oddballs, Novak spices up the scene by importing the camp of an armed cult and sets up the private investigators’ disguise as a wildlife photographer and his wife living in a trailer near Portal and dining at the general store, reataurant–all good choices.
The investigators playing married couple start out like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey–she proving she’s tough and not interested in him–he vaguely amused but concerned about her. And, without giving away too much–after all, this is a mystery/romance–they wind up like Hepburn and Tracey, too. The author leads them into increasingly serious trouble, which they make their way out of–no cavalry riding to the rescue from nearby Fort Bowie.
Since she grew up in central Arizona, Novak knows a bit about the geography, but since I’ve spent lazy days swinging on a cabin porch swing or listening to Cave Creek rush alongside a trail, I occasionally took exception to her transplanting the hot desert climate out to Portal and Paradise. After all, the area would not be a famous wildlife corridor, known for the incredible variety of species if its climate did not differ from the lower desert around I-10 through eastern Arizona.
These climatic details, however, don’t detract from the skillfull spinning of a suspenseful yarn (leading to climactic details) that I zipped through in a bet-you-can’t-read-just-one-chapter mode.
Just one question though, with all the research up there in Cave Creek about rattlesnakes, bats and lizards, wouldn’t a witches coven have been a logical enemy for the bad guys?
You can follow Brenda Novak on Twitter @Brenda_Novak. Her book was supplied to me by the publisher for review. The photo of the dramatic entrance to Portal comes from the portal web site kept by Pat Bennett (and I hope she will remember me and give me permission, since I could not locate contact info for her). Check out her web site for information on how you can enjoy Paradise and Portal at a much calmer pace than the heroes of White Heat.
When you read a mystery set in a familiar place, are you tempted to pick at the details, or luxuriate in the familiarity? What’s a favorite mystery set near a place YOU have vacationed?