Friday, January 23, 2015

New Mexico Crime Fiction: Fertile Soil in a Harsh Environment

Land of Enchantment.  Land of violent crime.

New Mexico's two faces, both compelling.  Both great subjects for novelists.

Tony Hillerman built a legacy introducing America to crime and crime fighters on the Navajo reservation.

Michael McGarrity became a franchise writing about violent crime in a state where he knew law enforcement first hand. 

A contest in Tony Hillerman's honor produced Christine Barber, whose first book The Replacement Child captured a side of Santa Fe no one else had previously tackled--the sad story of northern New Mexico's heroin culture.  The contest has continued to attract talented, unheralded novelists writing mysteries and crime fiction.

As Richard Santos has written, "There’s 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."

I'd been a prosecutor in Philadelphia before moving to New Mexico.  Immediately I as struck by the odd, bizarre and extremely violent subculture of crime throughout the state.  In future posts I will discuss some of the cases that stood over the years.

I'd go so far to say that there is a unique character to crime in New Mexico.  It is frequently the stuff you think you'd find only in off-beat, darkly humorous crime novels.  I think that is one of the reasons why the Breaking Bad series was so successful.  It blossomed in New Mexico as it would not have done had the series been set elsewhere.   There was a newness to the settings.  The characters were unique.  We'd never seen anything like them before.  Even the light was different.

Albuquerque proudly celebrated Walter White.  What other large city would claim as its hero a high school teacher turned murderous drug lord?

The environment is dry and harsh, unforgiving, swinging from extreme colds to extreme heat.  Its food is painfully spicy at times.  Its high air is thin.  Its winds unrelenting.  Its autumns spectacularly beautiful.

It is a crossroads of cultures, the place of the bloodiest prison riot in American history, home to a world famous opera, the world's largest balloon fiesta, two of the country's most important national laboratories.

People the world over know of Santa Fe.  In Paris, Edinburgh, Rome,  I'd say I was from New Mexico and people who live in some of the world's greatest cities would tell me how lucky I was to live near Santa Fe, somewhere they always wanted to visit.  And was Albuquerque really as bad as it appeared on that television show about the high school teacher turned drug lord?

New Mexcio has always had one of the nation's highest crime rates.  And yet it is such a small stage, its population dwarfed by immense, empty spaces.

It is a compact stage, where actors and stories won't get lost among props and special effects.
It is simply a great setting for crime fiction.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Thanks, Chris Gilbert

The photo of me on the home page was taken by my friend, Chris Gilbert.  It twas a dark and dreary day on the Olympic Peninsula.  We needed a flash even in a room with almost floor to ceiling windows.  I said to heck with it.  Let's take this outside.

Chris took a shot of me in the rain in front of a rhododendron.  It was a go.  Enough already with the camera.

Chris has a terrific voice, and an English accent that makes him perfect for singing Ewan MacColl songs (think "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "My Old Man" and "Dirty Old Town.").

We've had a lot of fun playing together in a pub band called "Happenstance."  I bring the guitar and harmonies.  Chris fronts the band and does it superbly.

Right now we're in hibernation.  Our bass players flees the gray Puget Sound winters for Central California sun.  And Chris' brother, our uke man, is back in England.

Did I mention Chris is from England?  That accent isn't acquired.

When the weather warms and sky clears, hopefully we'll be at Port Townsend's Uptown Pub, Tin Brick, Sirens Pub, and the Courtyard Cafe offering up songs by the Chieftains, the Furies, and Dubliners.

Now, if we can work up an hour of maritime music, maybe we'll make it to a stage at the Port Townsend Woodend Boat Festival.  That would be something. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Santa Fe Crime

Covering crime is like covering sports.

So wrote Geoff Grammer, former "justice" reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

He's now a sports writer for the Albuquerque Journal.

That's him.

While he covered "justice" for Santa Fe's daily, he kept a blog entitled, appropriately, Santa Fe Crime.  It provided the most extensive, intensive and entertaining coverage of the City Different's rogues, scoundrels, and thugs. 

I wish someone had kept the blog going.

Mr. Grammer discontinued the blog when he went he returned to sports writing.  Since then coverage of Santa Fe crime has been spotty and incomplete.  None of Santa Fe's media outlets regularly report on that city's crime the way Albuquerque's dark side gets attention.  Not that Santa Fe lacks for raw material for a robust police blotter.  Just look at Grammer's blog.

Santa Fe has its gangs, its shootings, its burglaries, its robberies, everything other cities have.  In light of its relatively small size, Santa Fe may have an even higher incidence of crime per capita or square mile.  The website Neighborhood Scout rates Santa Fe at level 8 on a scale of 100, 100 being the safest rating.  That means Santa Fe is only safer than 8% of the rest of America.


Not the stuff the tourist bureau and real estate companies selling the mansions in the hills want broadcast.

The same website reports that a Santa Fe resident has a three times higher risk of being a victim of property crime than an Albuquerque resident.  As for violent crime, Santa Fe is a bit safer than the rest of New Mexico.  But that's not saying much.  The Land of Enchantment is also the land of high rates of violent crime just about everywhere in the state. 

New Mexico may be at the bottom in many indices, but it exceeds the national average when it comes to crime.

Back to Santa Fe.

I think there are many untold stories behind the charm and style.  The contrast between the east and west sides is almost Dickensian.  It was the best of small cities (check the money and retirement mags), it was the worst of small cities (see above-cited stats).  That tension can be the stuff of great stories.

So I'll pick up where Geoff Grammer left off, writing about the twisted characters and nefarious schemes in the Santa Fe you won't read about anywhere else.