ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bairbre Higgins’ debut mystery-thriller, “The Torchbearers,” is set in the small fictional town of Prospero, N.M., home to a settlement of religious fundamentalists. Prospero isn’t far from the real southern New Mexico town of Deming.
Protagonist Ariel Mignolet, suffering burnout, has left a well-paying job as a hedge fund manager in San Francisco. Mignolet ends up in Prospero in search of rest and restoration.
That’s quickly interrupted when Mignolet is arrested and jailed for a triple murder. One of the dead is Mignolet’s cop-friend Mike Argyll.
A few pages later, the New Mexico State Police, without explanation, declares charges are dropped and Mignolet is set free. It’s the first of a number of plot twists.
Through Mignolet’s eyes the reader learns about the strangeness of varied characters who inhabit Greater Prospero. One of them is Mignolet’s next-door neighbor Caleb Freeth,who is hardly neighborly. A chapter is devoted to Freeth.
Mignolet can’t figure out how to talk to Freeth about his outdoor lighting. So Mignolet has the still-alive Argyll confront Freeth about the powerful mounted lights on the side of his house. Argyll tells him they are “outsize bulbs …within aluminum and glass casings that cast a glow at a wide angle.”
Freeth’s lights suffuse the entire living space of Mignolet’s home with an overpowering brightness. Mignolet doesn’t install curtains or blinds to block or reduce the glare.
Later in the same chapter more bizarre behavior surfaces. Mignolet peeks through a window by Freeth’s front door, observing him washing the feet of Seb Funchess, pastor of Prospero’s Independent Resurrection Baptist Church.
In another passage Mignolet struggles to relax at home after using the night-vision setting on a telescope looking for light in a dark valley. Then Higgins shifts the viewpoint, taking the reader inside Mignolet’s head: …untamable thoughts transport me back to the night of Mike’s murder. Running. Sprinting for my life across the plain. Torchbearers weaving in my wake….”
That’s the brief, initial introduction to the Torchbearers of the title and to the cult’s possible connection to the triple murder. Who are they? Stay tuned.
Higgins chose southern New Mexico near the Mexican border as the book’s desert setting.
“I researched various states where it could happen. I also became interested in ghost mining towns. That brought me into looking closer at Hidalgo and Grant counties in New Mexico,” Higgins, who lives in Dublin, Ireland, said in a phone interview.
“I felt it was the kind of place where, yes, a group of people could hide out for 20 years.”
In fact, the Hidalgo County ghost town of Shakespeare prompted Higgins to borrow character names from The Bard’s play “The Tempest” for her novel – Ariel, Prospero, Miranda and Fernando.A curiosity is that Mignolet’s gender isn’t revealed until halfway through the book.
Readers will need patience to follow excessively long scenes. The story can be intriguing, the writing is sure but the novel lacks the tensionand concision that a mystery/thriller requires.