Fresh Meat: Looking Through Darkness by Aimee and David Thurlo

Looking Through Darkness by Aimee and David Thurlo is the latest mystery in the Trading Post series set on a Navajo Reservation (available July 7, 2015).

Like any good mystery, the first scene in Looking Through Darkness is a murder. Set in the Navajo Nation, New Mexico, Kurt Vance is out in the wilderness on a hunt with his two business partners. He hears something, a twig snap, so he turns to see what caused the sound. He never finds out. The next thing he hears is a loud boom with him falling to the ground, looking up trying to make sense of the fact that he’s bleeding. Karma, he thinks, which is pretty much what authors Aimee and David Thurlo want you to think since they have gone out of their way to describe how Kurt has cheated on his wife, lied to almost everyone, and stolen thousands of dollars. As a reader, I’m not sure how much sympathy we are supposed to have for this character, but we certainly have enough for his wife, Leigh Ann, the main character of Looking Through Darkness, the second in the new Trading Post series.

Cut to 18 months later and we see how Leigh Ann is coping after the deemed accidental shooting of her husband. If you had the opportunity to ask her, she’d say “Life was definitely better now.” Leigh Ann, originally from Texas, is now making a go of it on her own in San Juan County, New Mexico:

[She's] in her mid-thirties now, she still had her looks, though her innocence was long gone and trust didn’t come easily to her anymore. She tried her hardest to be friendly and cheerful, but cynicism had, for the most part, replaced hope. These days, she had a tendency to assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised if circumstances proved her wrong.

She works at The Outpost, a general store located on the same reservation featured in the Ella Clah series. As an avid reader of the Thurlos’ novels featuring Ella, I must tell you, dear reader, she is not in this mystery. Instead we have a new cast of characters. Beginning with our strong lead female character of Leigh Ann, we have her employer, Jo Burton, owner of The Outpost. They both are without husbands: Leigh Ann’s a widow and Ben, Jo’s husband, is off fighting in Afghanistan. You might think that these two characters are nothing more than employer and employee, but strange things happen to both women that slowly begin our mystery.

Leigh Ann and her sister go up in her attic and discover an old booby trap set by Kurt. A shotgun tied with a string to a locked metal box is disturbed and fires a round into the attic creating quite a disturbance. She is unharmed and decides to shoot the box open. Inside she finds a passport with her husband’s photo but a different name, duplicate spreadsheets showing how accounting has been altered, a receipt from a storage facility, a .38 caliber pistol, and a small key. Most of these items look suspiciously like evidence of fraud and embezzlement. Being a good citizen, she turns the box and its contents over to the police, keeping the .38 gun for her own protection. Meanwhile, Jo, who is studying the Native American blessings from the local hataalii, visits her teacher for her next lesson. He is poisoned right in front of her eyes while drinking tea. She calls 911 and keeps him alive for the paramedics to arrive. He believes that he has been poisoned by the boyfriend of a now-dead client, something for which the boyfriend blames the hataalii and, by extension, Jo.

From this point, the story really takes off. Things start happening to both women individually as well as together. You don’t know which woman is being targeted. As the situations become more dire, the Thurlos give Leigh Ann and Jo wonderful support with the other people who are involved with The Outpost. The varied workers—an older woman, a sculptor, a computer worker, even a jeweler (!)—come together to help Jo and Leigh Ann, the only non-Navajo, solve this mystery. The tightening of this “family” is a fantastic component to this novel. They have each other’s backs, and it shows that a family born out of necessity can be as strong as blood.

The story isn’t all dark. There are lighter moments, and wonderful interactions between our group of friends, including a special chemistry between Leigh Ann and sculptor Melvin Littlewater, who is legally blind. In a more light-hearted scene right after Leigh Ann and Jo got run off the road, Jo asks Leigh Ann how she had the ability to evade the mystery car:

Bumper cars at the county fair, I guess. Besides, there was no other choice than to leave the road and hang on.

I also enjoyed this banter from Leigh Ann in reference to Kurt after having her car keys stolen:

“You mangy old toad,” Leigh Ann muttered under her breath. “I’ll straighten out your mess, and after that I’m going back to my maiden name. I don’t want anything more to do with you. I’m going to bury the memories, just like I buried you.”

Didn’t I mention that we have strong female characters in this novel?

I have read all the Ella Clah novels and consider them to be among my favorites. I always enjoy learning something new about Navajo culture and history and the Thurlos deliver again. I eagerly looked forward to this book because it was the same setting but with a brand-new set of characters. It is with sadness that I learned, in the afterward, that this novel was Aimee’s last to write and edit before she succumbed to cancer in 2014. She always did the last pass of their manuscripts and in her last two weeks of life, they finished this book together. I can’t help but wonder if these words from the novel came to mind in her last days:

Hope…It was often a cheat, but sometimes it was all a person had.

The good news for us readers, however, is that Aimee’s legacy will live on in the wonderful characters and books already published and the ones already in the pipeline. As David writes, “The Love she had for storytelling is now a gift to be shared forever with our readers.”

I’m so glad those gifts are out there.

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Vanessa L. Parker is a jewelry artist and avid reader. You can see her work at Betoj Designs.

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