Serpents of Old by Kirk Millson

Serpents of Old is a novel steeped in Southwest atmosphere and mystery,. Author Kirk Millson’s familiarity with Arizona and Mexico’s byways (albeit now changed by growth and technology) lends a solid background to the evolving story of dogs, murder, and desert struggles when reporter Carter Miguel follows his nose for trouble from Arizona to Utah.

A young mother vanishes during an Arizona hike; then her children also vanish from their Salt Lake City home. The father is suspect, but but Carter thinks a different story might be in play than the cut-and-dry case the investigating detective wants to slap on matters. Carter’s probe leads to a Utah community, a con artist whose latest deal is threatened by the reporter’s nosing around, and a dangerous truth that isn’t easy to come by, given the detective’s adversarial relationship with the determined reporter.

There are many angles that separate this southwest-steeped mystery from other genre reads to make it an exception to any formula approach. One of the strongest is this clash between investigators, and each’s special interest in the case.

It turns out that Carter is not only reporting on a puzzle and trying to solve it, but has stirred up a virtual hornet’s nest of dangerous special interests in the process of doing his job.

Another strong feature of Serpents of Old lies in its astute cross-cultural descriptions as Mexican soldiers encounter American investigators and escapees on the run from justice.

There’s also an undercurrent of humor that runs through it, as when Tom discovers that his escape plane has been running on fumes, and that Pedro must leave him alone with it in search of gas, tamales, or tequila.

The characters are solid enough to keep the story flowing, and but not too numerous, which makes it easy to follow the story line’s circuitous route through different perspectives and special interests.

Who is pulling the strings behind an innocent man’s indictment for murder? How have the Atoners gotten a toehold in law enforcement circles, and how can romantic feelings between suspect Tom and Casey evolve in the crosshairs of a justice system gone wrong and a flight to freedom? As a teaser about one of the story’s underlying themes, dog lovers also are thrown a pleasantly unexpected bone.

All these angles intersect to create a vivid story that will especially delight fans of Tony Hillerman and others interested in capturing the southwest landscape against the backdrop of murder, mystery, and struggles for justice.

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