reviewed by Maureen Carden
Longtime fans of the mother daughter writing team of PJ Tracy were much relieved when daughter Traci picked up her mom’s writing torch after PJ passed. First by finishing or putting on hiatus the legendary Monkeewrench Gang series then starting a series set in Los Angeles featuring a new set of characters.
Desolation Canyon is part of the new Detective Margaret Nolan #2 series named after the newest member of the storied LA Robbery Homicide Division (RHD). For now though, Margaret Nolan is sharing top billing with severely injured Afghanistan war vet Sam Easton. Sam is badly disfigured and suffering PTSD. It turns out PTSD is not limited to those who have served in the military. Oh no, PTSD likes to spread its poisonous tentacles to family members, or those who have suffered other types of devastating losses. PTSD is the engine that is driving this outstanding, tender story. Oh don’t get me wrong, this is also a hardcore police procedural.
The narratives of Sam and Margaret start out so far apart, both geographically and type of crime; once again PJ Tracy skillfully knits the two stories together.
Desert rat Lenny, who runs a small gas station store in Death Valley, is the business closest to the facility of Children of the Desert located in Desolation Canyon. A thoroughly Americanized Russian runs the facility after realizing he has genuine abilities in helping people with their problems of grief, sadness, depression; or almost anything that knocks life badly off kilter. No spa, but not abusive to their clients either. Although maybe very abusive to others. A young woman with a small child asks Lenny for help in escaping the compound, Lenny in turn later asks Sam to check on them after their escape, but they have already been found.
Margaret is finally having her long-promised drink with fellow detective Remy Beaudreau at the Hotel Bel-Air. Where else would a rich Louisianan (anyone born there, raised there, or just lived there, will almost always claim to be a forever Louisianan) take a woman for a first date? Unfortunately, the swans in the famous Swan Lake detract from the normally exceedingly romantic surroundings as they seem very upset; something about a body floating in the water. The floater is a quiet attorney who works for a well-respected Russian company.
Ah, the theme is starting to come into focus a bit. A group of Russians will shock even the most jaded fan of the police procedural genre. I won’t say they make the cartels or old time Mafia families look good, (they do) and none are named Putin, but some of their crimes are shocking in a new way, or at least the reasons. It’s just not Russians either. Shall I dare say, you might even applaud one or two of the victims?
PJ Tracy is careful with the police investigation, no wild flights of fancy, ESP or unexpected deus ex machina. Just Margaret, Remy and Margaret’s mentor, Al Crawford, running a careful, connect- the- dots investigation of murder. Lots of murders.
With their military backgrounds, Sam, Lenny, and Margaret’s father carry out most of the derring-do element of the book. Margaret, Al and Remy take the more legal sidelines. A sad sack investigating Aliens provides the weirdness.
Margaret’s parents and Remy’s past come into a sharper, more poignant focus. PJ Tracy, writes with such compassion about all the shapes of loss. Margaret and Sam are both suffering from having to take life; Remy is suffering from missing a life, and Margaret’s parent are suffering the worst pain of all, losing the life of their beloved son in combat. Some are suffering from more than one grief. They each seem to help one another heal on some level; they all handle their grief gracefully, even while being PTSD victims themselves.
So Desolation Canyon adds up to an outstanding book with careful investigative procedures, well rounded characters, and a story that quickly get its hooks into you.