Las Cruces author Carol Potenza is in good company. Potenza writes in the mystery tradition of New Mexicans who have come before her – Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman, James Doss and Aimee and David Thurlo.
Those authors set many of their successful mysteries in Indian Country; the Hillermans’ and the Thurlos’ on the Navajo reservation and Doss’ on the Ute reservation.
Potenza’s promising debut mystery “Hearts of the Missing” is set on a fictional, Keres-speaking pueblo off Interstate 25 between Santa Ana and Cochiti pueblos.
In her newly published novel, Potenza named the pueblo Tsiba’ashi D’yini, translated as Fire-Sky. The protagonist is Nicky Matthews, a sergeant on the pueblo’s police force who is working to fit together the pieces of a deadly puzzle.
Initially, Nicky is dealing with the case of Sandra Deering, a member of the pueblo and soon-to-be-graduated University of New Mexico student who has disappeared. Sandra’s body is found on train tracks, and her death is ruled a suicide.
But Nicky has a passel of unanswered questions about the ruling. She wonders why the toxicology results were speeded up when the state crime lab’s work is backed up. She wonders if Sandra’s death may have something to do with her class project about an apparent rise in the number of Fire-Sky Indians who had disappeared – or were believed lost – over the past few years. Nicky learned from Sandra’s professor that Sandra refused to reveal much about her research because she thought it might endanger her.
The novel also has spiritual elements. Maybe there’s a murderer who wants to ensure that the spirits of those killed will forever wander and be lost to family and their ancestors. Potenza said she incorporated pueblo ceremonies, rituals and ghost stories that were told to her.
Nicky’s pursuit of the Deering case leads her to look into possible shady work at the state medical investigator’s office on DNA testing of Fire-Sky Indians who allegedly committed suicide.
Nicky also sniffs around to determine if that testing is linked to the pueblo’s method of a per capita distribution of funds to members based on their Fire-Sky genetic makeup. She thinks Peter Santibanez, who’s in charge of the pueblo’s tribal enrollment office, may be manipulating the distribution and removing members he doesn’t think qualify for funds.
Courageous Nicky seems to be treading on thin ice. She challenges Santibanez’s authority. Her superiors want her to drop the Deering case yet she can’t let go. Nicky herself may be a target. In separate incidents, the front windows of her home are broken and a rattlesnake is found under the seat of her vehicle.
Could they be related to her bosses’ opposition to her work on the Deering case? Or are they jealous, crazed over-reactions of the wife of the state police chief, a former lover of Nicky’s?
Nicky isn’t the only one looking into the case and its possible link to the deaths of other pueblo members. So is the FBI. The feds may have two FBI agents working undercover on the pueblo to determine if there’s a serial killer on the reservation.
Potenza stirs the various ingredients together into a satisfying conclusion.
“Hearts of the Missing” is the winner of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize.
The prize comes with Minotaur Books editing, marketing and publishing the novel.
Potenza, an assistant professor of biochemistry at New Mexico State University, said she has finished a second novel and is working on a third in the series.