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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Tough Love Story in Plainclothes Police Drag




Texas, Hold Your Queens
By Marie Crosswell
87 pages
(One Eye Press; June 13, 2016)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
ASIN: B01H1YM69U

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: Marie Crosswell’s novella, Texas, Hold Your Queens, is something different: a hard-as-nails love story tricked out in police procedural drag.

Ostensibly, Crosswell’s novella is a textbook tale about how two veteran cops, El Paso Detectives Mason Page and Farrah Tyler, track down a rapist murderer. 

Author Marie Crosswell
But the mystery angle is superficial (in fact, the identity of the perp is revealed in the first 6,700 words of this tight 90,000 word novella); the police procedure, though skillfully recounted and totally believable, is secondary to the yarn’s real focus.

What the book is really about is the tortured relationship between Page and Tyler, two women who are forced apart by circumstances and realize they simply can’t live without each other.

Setting the scene, the two detectives – the only women in the El Paso Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, are dispatched to investigate what happened to a nameless Mexican woman found near the Texas-Mexico border, the victim of a sexual assault and savage stabbing.

The case appears routine but extraordinarily hard to solve: the woman’s identity is unknown, it is unclear how long she has been in the United States and there are no witnesses to her death.

Crosswell tells the story well, intercutting the hunt for the killer and how finding him affects the two detectives. At first, the somewhat jumbled order of events confused me, forcing me to go back and reread some key passages. But eventually I recognized there is a sort of genius in avoiding a linear narrative.

The police procedural part of the story is the patient, methodical way they put the case together.

As the investigation proceeds, however, we undergo a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards that spell out the relationship between the two women, a love affair that is almost utterly sexless based on their isolation within a largely male police agency and aching loneliness.

The best lead Page and Tyler unearth is from the county medical examiner, who finds a partially digested hamburger and fries in the victim’s stomach during his postmortem examination.

Following up the meal clue, they are able to track down the waitress who served the victim her last supper, the prostitute who bought it for her and the desk clerk who rents the hooker her hot-sheets motel room.

Still they are no closer to the perpetrator of the crime. Despite the lack of substantive clues, the two female detectives slowly put together a picture of the victim they both find haunting. The evidence that turns the investigation toward solution, however, is not the product of their dedicated police work; instead it is a positive hit on the perp’s DNA.

With an ID in hand, Page and Tyler begin to really work the case, interviewing the suspect’s warders at a prison in a neighboring state, his family members and an ex-girlfriend. Page even interviews his prior victim, a woman who has moved to Truth of Consequences, New Mexico, and who nurtures a simmering resentment toward and hatred of the perpetrator.

It is during this road trip that the central conflict of the story is revealed:

“Mason and Farrah had agreed in the car on the way there that they wouldn’t say anything about Gabler serving for rape and assault in New Mexico. Reviewing his record, those charges did stand out as a new development, the rest of his rap sheet an assortment of drug possession, DUI, drunk and disorderly, parole violations, and petty theft. They hadn’t talked about it, but they had both been thinking the same thing: he progressed from violent rape and assault to murder, after a seven year stint inside. He got worse, not better.”

“This wasn’t someone who could be reformed, and if he didn’t serve life for Reina’s murder, he’d get out and do something just as bad again.”

So what do you do with an incorrigible criminal who becomes more violent and dangerous with each crime? This is the key issue the two cops are forced to face.

Their search for the fugitive eventually culminates in an incident at a flophouse in Odessa, Texas. There the story takes a wicked turn, one which the reader realizes he or she has been expecting for some time because of the way the tale has unfolded. It is no less shocking when it finally occurs, however, and the remaining question is how it will affect the two detectives.

Crosswell has done an expert job of bringing these characters to life. She manages the tender ache of Tyler and Page particularly well, and the rift between the two women over the incident in Odessa will break any reader’s heart. The incidental characters – the earlier rape victim, the suspects’ relations, the motel desk clerks, waitresses and so forth – are also invested with fully developed personalities and physical tics to make then unique.

The dialog in this short book is equally sharp and convincing. The detectives keep their comments  terse; witnesses who are “in the life” like Tammy, the prostitute, emit the vibe of people reluctant to talk with cops; the killer’s relatives sound disgusted at the evil he has done.

The emotions of speakers are not the focus of their remarks: they act them out by what they do with their hands, how they stand during questioning, the way they smoke (almost everyone in this short book smokes like a five-alarm fire).

Most important of all, cop lingo can be easily overdone; Crosswell avoids that trap by having her investigators use very few terms specific to the trade and none that require translation into everyday English.

The novella is steeped in the loneliness of the two investigators and the weariness of their daily skirmishes against villainy. The war is eternal and Sisyphean, and the reader ends up with a bone-grinding feeling of cop burnout after finishing the last page.

I feel fortunate recently to have read some marvelous stories by fine female crime writers, including Lisa Brackmann, Jen Conley and Marietta Miles. I am looking forward to the latest from Sarah M. Chen and Patti Nase Abbott.

Marie Crosswell’s novella is a fine addition to the pack. I can’t recommend it enough.

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