Fresh Meat: When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber is the third book featuring detective Gil Montoya and newspaper reporter Lucy Newroe (available April 16, 2013).

It’s Christmas and Santa Fe is beautiful. Farolitos line the streets and rooftops, making it look like an enchanted town. But the enchantment ends when two homicide detectives are called to the scene of a house fire. Inside they find three corpses—and only one of the men died as a result of the fire.

Farolitos (candles inside brown paper bags) are just one of the traditions I discovered in this entertaining book. Christine Barber gives readers history and information about this part of the country with her recurring characters, detective Gil Montoya and newspaper reporter/editor Lucy Newroe. The beauty of the story is she doesn’t overpower it with the history, but lets it blend naturally into events as they occur.

Lucy and Gil worked together in two previous books, The Replacement Child and The Bone Fire. Since Lucy is a volunteer EMT, she tends to be a part of Gil’s cases and he doesn’t trust her because she’s a reporter, which gives these two a compelling edge in the story. This time, Gil also must deal with the challenge of a new partner, Joe, who’s from back east and is learning about the Santa Fe area, its people, and customs as their investigation progresses.

While the story of an insidious serial killer who stays one step ahead of the detectives is enthralling, Barber also gives us personal insights into her characters. With newspapers becoming a dying breed, Lucy has a new position at the paper that isn’t called a demotion but feels like one, and Gil has to deal with a secret from his past. Joe wants to connect with a good-looking woman and provides nice little touches of humor along with intense detective work.

I was involved with this book from the first page. Even though the characters have been in two previous stories, I had no trouble keeping up with them in this book. The plot is suspenseful and intriguing and opens up step by step, just as the murder investigation does.

The depth of the story is strengthened by the fact that Barber is a former reporter and EMT. In her bio, she says she misses working as an EMT every day. I admire that kind of spirit and determination because I know that’s a job I could never handle.

In this scene, Lucy and her boss are going to the scene of a house fire. You can feel the emotions and tension just from the dialogue and descriptions:

The fire was an orange pinprick across a dark plain dotted with piñon and juniper trees. The glow could have been the angry red of a campfire, except Lucy Newroe knew better.

It was a burning home.

She watched the distant flames through the front windshield of the ambulance as it left the fire station. It was 5:23 p.m. Full dark. Yet she could see the shadows of mountains on the horizon and, behind them, muted stars, smudged out by a high haze of cirrus clouds.

In front of the ambulance, the fire engine turned onto the highway. The words Piñon Volunteer Fire and Rescue—Santa Fe County were a blur of gold and reflective red on the vehicle’s side. The tanker truck carrying the water they would use to fight the fire followed behind the ambulance—a convoy of lights and sirens making its way down the dead quiet highway.

Gerald Trujillo, who was in the driver’s seat beside her, keyed the radio, saying, “Santa Fe dispatch, Piñon Medic One responding to the structure fire on Calle del Rio.” His voice was calm, as always. Lucy could hear the three firefighters who had hitched a ride with them laughing in the back of the ambulance.

“It’s time to do a surround and drown, que no?” She couldn’t make out who had said that.

“I don’t want to be a hero. I just want to get there,” another voice said.

“Hell, I want to be a hero.” More laughing.

She was tapping her leg hard against the passenger door, making the window rattle. Gerald looked over at her but didn’t comment.

As they pulled up a winding driveway, Lucy got her first look at the house, which seemed strangely intact. She didn’t see any flames coming out of the front picture windows.

The fire must be in the back of the house. Their headlights swept across the front of the house, which was painted the usual Santa Fe adobe beige with the usual wooden beam vigas jutting out from the roof and the usual chile ristras hanging near the huge carved front doors.

Lucy hopped out of the ambulance and into a drift of snow that went up to her knees. She did her best to stomp most of it off her combat boots before pulling her firefighting gear out of a side compartment. The firefighters in the back of the ambulance piled out with a loud “Let’s play,” and another set of laughs. But their voices were tense. More fire trucks came up the driveway, with firefighters jumping out even before their vehicles had stopped. Some pulled hoses off the truck beds while others started gearing up, snapping helmets and pulling on gloves. The scene quickly became a cacophony—sirens, yelling, motors, pumps. One truck turned on its roof-mounted stadium lights, instantly bleaching everything in brightness and creating elongated shadows that reached out to the dark trees around them.

Lucy tried to ignore it all and concentrate on one thing: Gerald Trujillo’s voice.

“What’s the first thing you need to know before we go into that house,” he was saying over the noise.

“I don’t . . .” Lucy was trying to put her heavy yellow bunker pants on over her clothes. Left foot in left boot.

“We need to know if there’s someone inside,” Gerald yelled. Lucy nodded. Right foot in right boot.

Barber does an excellent job of portraying the horror, fear, and helplessness the detectives feel as they delve further and further into the case. Their struggle to find the identity of victims and the murderer is like putting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together without any corners or edges. And there’s a twist that will leave you breathless.

Read at your own risk…or enjoyment.


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Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, writes for the blog, and recently has a short story in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She and her collaborator, Jan Powell, have a book, Second Nature by Neely Powell, coming out soon. See updates at their website, or, their blog.

Read all posts by Leigh Neely for Criminal Element.

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