By Tricia Fields
“ScratchgravelRoad”has a gritty heroine, a rugged border landscape and extreme Texas weather ― pretty much everything you’d expect in a mystery from an author based in ... Indiana?
This is the second novel featuring Josie Gray, police chief in the economically strapped West Texas town of Artemis. She battled Mexican drug cartels in Tricia Fields’ debut mystery “The Territory,” which won the Tony Hillerman Prize.
In “Scratchgravel Road,” Chief Gray must investigate a dead body with unusual wounds found in the desert. The trail leads to a former uranium processing facility outside town known as the Feed Plant, now run by a private contractor hired to deal with the radioactive waste left behind. But is something other than cleanup going on at the plant?
The dead body isn’t the chief’s only problem. Heavy rains are coming ― perhaps even a hundred-year flood, threatening to strain the town’s meager resources.
Fields may be a Hoosier, but she’s got a sure feel for her Texas setting, as this passage makes clear:
Josie rolled her windows down to smell the wet earth, a smell she associated with a sense of longing and dread. She loved the sound of raindrops on her roof, listening to the deep endless roll of thunder across the desert, and watching the sheets of rain travel across the land like a curtain being drawn across a stage. But the aftermath would be ugly.
The author has populated Artemis with a believable cast of small-town characters beset by realistic personal problems. The town and its struggles feel real, too, whether Fields is depicting the understaffed hospital or the everyday ingenuity and casual heroism of the guys on the county road crew.
The pacing is brisk, although Fields occasionally overdoes physical descriptions of characters or places that, in the long run, just aren’t that important to the plot.
Some readers might think they have the mystery figured out early on, but they should keep reading. Fields has a couple surprises in store; figuring who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy isn’t quite as simple as it initially appears.
With any mystery series, there’s always the question of whether individual installments stand on their own. “Scratchgravel Road” meets that test. Another paragraph or two on Josie Gray’s background would have been welcome, and a side trip to Mexico probably doesn’t pack as much punch for readers who haven’t read about her previous battles with cartels.
One troublemaker exits the stage fairly early ― might we see him again in the next book?
Of course, the best way to make sure you’ve not missed anything important is to backtrack and read “The Territory” before tackling “Scratchgravel Road.” Chief Gray and the townsfolk are diverting company; Artemis is definitely worth more than one visit.