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Rick Lenz
A Town Called Why
Rick Lenz, author
Colleagues of Frank Gaines, a half-Apache, Arizona desert town police detective, know him as a courageous man. Gaines doubts that. He suspects he’s afraid of not behaving courageously. He goes into therapy. This creates a new problem: he is falling in love with his therapist, a striking, full-blooded Apache woman, Sunny Kacheenay, granddaughter of a great shaman, who has mystical gifts of her own. A distant maternal relative of Gaines dies by shotgun blast. Against her own best professional instincts, Sunny is forced to tell Gaines that by ancient, ancestral law, his sacred duty is to find, torture and kill the murderer. Jokingly, Gaines tells her it’s not the 1800s anymore. Sunny doesn’t laugh. In the process of trying to hunt down the most malignant villain Gaines has ever heard of, he begins to test his courage for real and to recognize his true feelings about life, love, and courage.
Lenz’s evocative, character-driven thriller of desert justice and indigenous ways finds half-Apache policeman Frank Gaines discovering a threat to the therapist for whom he harbors feelings, the striking Sunny Kacheenay, and eventually setting out on a deadly manhunt touched with the mystic. Arriving for a therapy session, Frank finds an envelope containing the threat beneath Sunny’s door and discovers its source, to his dismay, seems to be a fellow patient, Geneva Wright. Meanwhile, Jason Flint, Sunny’s landlord and Geneva’s abusive boyfriend, is forcing the evictions of local residents. When Gordon Cody ends his life because of Jason’s purchase, Frank discovers that he is the only living maternal relative of the dead man—and Apache law demands he kill the person responsible.

Set amid the “ghostly forms of the cliffs and mesas” of Southeast Arizona, the novel boasts striking descriptions of the desert, itself something of a character, mysterious and powerful with its own intentions and interventions in people’s lives. Lenz employs a host of perspective characters, offering a multifaceted view not just of the twisting plot but of life as each lives it, stirring reader sympathy towards each, even the villainous Jason Flint. That narrative richness demands that readers keep up, of course, though the transitions and the narrative logic behind them is clear throughout.

The characters are all well rounded, and the telling is nuanced. Though a fresh murder seems imminent, and the crimes of the past loom large in everyone’s lives, Lenz’s pacing—always even, never frantic—keeps the story absorbing until an ending that edges toward the mystic without ever breaking the rules of realism. The author touches on issues of deep injustice done to the native inhabitants of the American continent, with particular emphasis on the Apache. Knotty questions of reparation, justice, and the ever-present shadow of discrimination give resonance to this well told-tale.

Takeaway: An absorbing tale of mystery and revenge in the Arizona desert, with a Native American cast.

Great for fans of: Stephen Graham Jones’s All the Beautiful Sinners, Louis Owens’s The Sharpest Sight.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A