DURING THE SUMMER OF 1936, destitute farmers from the Dust Bowl swarm into California, and an old friend brings police detective Tom Hickey a manuscript, a clue to the mystery of his father Charlie’s longago disappearance.
Tom chooses to risk losing his job and family to follow this lead. Even his oldest friend and mentor, retired cop Leo Weiss, opposes Tom’s decision. Why so passionately?
Tom lures the novelist B. Traven to a meeting on Catalina and accuses him of manuscript theft and homicide. Traven replies that the Sundance Kid, having escaped from his reputed death in Bolivia, killed Charlie. Tom crosses the desert to Tucson, tracking the person or ghost of the legendary outlaw. He meets a young Dust Bowl refugee intent on avenging the enslavement of his sister by an L.A. cop on temporary border duty in Yuma. Tom frees the sister, delivers the boy’s revenge, and becomes a fugitive, wanted for felony assault by the L.A.P.D., his now-former employer.
What he learns in Tucson sends Tom up against powerful newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. He hopes to enlist Leo, but instead Leo offers evidence that Tom’s father was a criminal. For Tom and his sister, both victims of Charlie’s wife, their crazy mother, what now?
This is the final chapter in the Hickey saga that ranges across the 1900s.
What a Good Mystery Needs
Okay, a good mystery novel, according to me, needs compelling characters, a valuable theme, lots of questions, and a plot that doesn't give away the solution but feels right and justified when it's revealed. Those qualities will make me eager to read more of an author's work.
Good stories are about people, or in some cases, animals (who usually think and feel like people). A story that grips and satisfies me will always have at least one character I either pull for (or occasionally against) or about whom I want to learn. He or she could be a detective as generous and good-hearted as Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee, or a villian as despicable as Patricia Highsmith's Ripley or J.K. Rowling's Voldemort.
And I, and at least a few other dinosaurs, appreciate theme. Lots of writers and writing teachers consider theme taboo or laughable. Sure, a story that appears written primarily to present a theme can be dreadful and annoying. But I don't care to read anything that is strictly for entertainment. I want to also experience and take away something valuable. It doesn't need to be a specific moral or an answer to some universal concern like why there is evil in the world. It could be, say, a depiction of cooks or gardeners that encourages me to respect those vocations more highly. I may not even be able to define the theme since it could simply be a reflection of the narrator's particular and interesting attitude. I don't demand profound lessons, just something I can use. Life's so short and often difficult to navigate, I'm always in need of learning or growth opportunities and most appreciate when a favorite activity, such as reading, offers them.
This next advice, I heard from two respected mystery writers, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. They got from Raymond Chandler, from his collected letters, I believe. The advice: try to include a question on every page. Chandler even claimed (though he was a humorist as well as a storyteller) that he wrote on steno pads because he generated more questions by using smaller pages.
And here's a requirement I believe applies equally to all fiction, not just mystery: the resolution or solution should be so craftily planted that though it won't be obvious and may even come as a surprise, at the same time we will think, "Oh man, I should've known that."
Then the reader, at least if she's like my beloved grandma, puts down the book thinking, okay writer, you outsmarted me this time, but I'm going to read more of your books and you're not going to outsmart me again. So there.
Ken Kuhlken’s stories have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship. His novels have been chosen as an Ernest Hemingway Best First Fiction Book, a Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and a Shamus Awards Best Novel. The novels are Midheaven and the Tom Hickey California Crime series.