Crater County: A legal thriller of New Mexico
Reviewed by Tom Hester
When Jonathan Miller participated in the last Southwest Festival of the Written Word, he had what drama professionals call “presence.” Presence is confidence, mixed with a cupful of charm and a dash of threat. Lawyers use it to cow their adversaries and beguile their colleagues.
Some lawyers, Miller and John Grisham, leap right to mind, use presence to fashion tales of crime and the law. Miller has an advantage because he and his characters practice law in New Mexico, as different from other states as a sopapilla is distinct from a pancake. In fact, New Mexico in Miller’s novel is as important as any character and also drives the plot.
Crater County takes place in a mythical county west of Albuquerque. It’s arid except where it’s not, specifically a lake convenient for the assistant district attorney’s skinny dipping.
Crater, the county seat of Crater County and with the unofficial motto of If you have a day left to live, you might as well live in Crater because it will feel like forever, features two restaurants: the Rustler where the natives eat and the Crossroads, on I-40 and intended for motorists who pay exhorbitant prices for brown-tinged iceberg. The police force operates just this side of Mayberry of TV fame, featuring a fading high school stud who steers a police Corvette and a sort of Barney Fife deputy, decked out as Yosemite Sam.
Three murders, and then two more, furnish the plot, although the first three look to be open-and-shut. The hero of our story, resisting the characteristics of a leading role at every turn, is defending attorney Sam Marlow, probably named when Miller was searching his library for an ideal moniker and his eyes alighted on twin volumes by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, ideal writers from whom to swipe a gumshoe lawyer.
The assistant district attorney is Luna Cruz, she of the missing towel, part-Mexican, part-Jewish, with a real resistance to practicing law, especially with her best buddy, DA Diana Crater, from whose family the county got its name. Diana is having sexual identity issues, in part involving a relationship with one of the three victims, Felicia. I think this sketchy list of personages sets the stage, with the assurance that there are more windings and complications than any reviewer could competently handle.
Now for some local color, rather, local stench. The Crater courthouse was renovated from the community center gym because neither the county nor the state had sufficient funds to build a new courthouse.
“Courtroom B smelled worse than usual. Having so many people in such a small place somehow intensified the old racquetball smell—sweat, rubber and old jock straps. Some of the women jurors had gone for perfume as a means of compensating. Unfortunately, Courtroom B now smelled like the basement locker room for an old French whorehouse.”
Over this stinking brew presides Judge Benally, part-Navajo, all UNM Lobo. Benally’s family developed the famous water Sheep Springs Mineral Water, with a label that has a picture of sheep in a spring. Surely this novel’s judge, who leads a recreational tequila tasting in Ciudad Juarez, represents a non-fictional judge before whom Miller has appeared. Equally identifiable, reporting on the malodorous case, is Albuquerque TV news personality Stephanie Park Live, so-called because she always signs off “This is Stephanie Park live….”
This thriller is as familiar as stepping out doors. Some readers not fortunate enough to live with us in New Mexico may find it far-fetched. The truth is Miller didn’t have to invent much and he sure knows how to stir in the charm. Silver City readers, take heed.
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