A wide variety of writers and artists have been drawn to New Mexico. D.H. Lawrence spent the end of his life there, as did Roger Zelazny. Both Cormac McCarthy and George R.R. Martin live near Santa Fe—have fun picturing the two of them getting together for a bowl of green chile stew. N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winner for House Made of Dawn, is a Kiowa from northern New Mexico. Diane Ackerman’s Twilight of the Tenderfoot, and Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Winter in Taos are classic memoirs set in New Mexico.
There’s also a long history of crime novelists not only writing in, but writing about New Mexico. After centuries of tribal warfare, Spanish invasion, the Pueblo Revolt, a couple forgotten Civil War battles, the wild west, Billy the Kid, and the Atomic bomb, New Mexico’s history reads like bloody crime fiction. So it’s not surprising that so many mystery authors have been drawn to the Land of Enchantment.
Percival Everett’s Assumption features a biracial Deputy Sherriff in a small town outside of Taos. Everett isn’t considered a “genre” writer (see what I think of that distinction elsewhere) and he pushes the police procedural in an interesting direction. Deputy Sherriff Ogden Walker is always aware of how his race affects those around him, and by the end of the book, not to give too much away, the full effect of this pressure is revealed.
Assumption follows a long tradition of mysteries and police procedurals set in New Mexico’s small towns or villages. These places, in reality and in novels, are full of beautiful landscapes, eccentric locals, and hornets’ nests just dying to be kicked by nosy sheriffs. And yet, each is fundamentally different. Steven Havill’s Posadas County Mysteries—the most recent is One Perfect Shot—are set along the Mexico-New Mexico border, but his small town setting shares few similarities with Everett’s.
Dorothy Hughes is best known for In a Lonely Place, which was turned into the classic noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. But Hughes lived in Santa Fe for many years and in 1946 she published Ride the Pink Horse, which was also adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring (and directed by) Robert Montgomery. Horse is about a man on the run from the mob, but it’s also about Spanish and American cultures being thrust together.
Of course the most famous New Mexican writer is Tony Hillerman. Over nearly forty years, Hillerman wrote eighteen novels set on the Navajo reservation and featuring tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Hillerman’s books were almost all bestsellers and he may have done more to bring New Mexico and Navajo culture to a larger audience than any other author—all while writing taut, classic mysteries. Hillerman also wrote several non-fiction books about New Mexico. The Great Taos Bank Robbery is a must-read because of Hillerman’s hilarious, nuanced portraits of northern New Mexico.
Margaret Coel is often compared to Hillerman since both authors focus on Native culture and crimes that occurred on reservations.
While small towns and the state’s Pueblos and reservations have received much of the focus, not all authors are afraid to set their work in Albuquerque—it is the largest city in the state, after all. Rudolfo Anaya, winner of the Premio Quinto Sol award and an NEA National Medal of Arts Lifetime Achievement award, is probably the state’s most prominent Chicano author. Best known for the classic Bless Me Ultima, Anaya has written four Sonny Baca mysteries. Baca is a private investigator who lives on the westside of Albuquerque. The Baca novels are infused with a respect for the past and an attempt to solve crimes and explore the social issues that created the crimes.
New Mexico crime novelists don’t just write mysteries. Instead, the best of them try to understand the social and racial currents running through the state. Forgive me for overlooking or excluding anyone’s favorite author. I didn’t even attempt to catalog the countless westerns or science fiction novels set in the state. This wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, just a quick trip through the Land of Enchantment’s darker books.
Richard Z. Santos lives outside of Austin and is enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State University. Once, he worked in Washington, DC, but now he doesn’t do much more than write and teach. He blogs at Paperclip People, and is working on his first novel—a crime thriller set in New Mexico.