for the Journal
Bid adiós to Kevin Kerney. Sort of.
Kerney briefly steps out of the shadows in “Head Wounds,” the 14th and final installment in Michael McGarrity’s popular crime fiction series known as the Kevin Kerney novels.
Late in “Head Wounds” the lawman gets a sentimental send-off at a retirement party on the rooftop patio of a downtown Santa Fe hotel.
“He’s 70 and no longer in his prime,” McGarrity said in a phone interview from his Santa Fe home. “I wanted to bring this series to a close, do it voluntarily and do it as well as I can write and not fall into the trap of doing it for monetary gain. I’ve read too many crime series where the writers have lost their punch, lost their way, just to get their checks.”
Returning as the protagonist in this police procedural is Kerney’s son, Clayton Istee, a Mescalero Apache and detective with the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office. The action begins when Istee investigates a bloody double murder: An Anglo man and a Mescalero woman are found scalped with their throats cut in a Las Cruces hotel. It seems the couple had ripped off $200,000 from a casino customer with close ties to borderland drug lords.
The murders take Istee far outside his jurisdiction as he works in tandem with undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents to get rid of the entrenched drug kingpins in Piedras Negras, Mexico. Their power reaches across the border into Eagle Pass, Texas and beyond. Blocking the agents’ way are corrupt DEA agents. Meanwhile, the kingpins want returned $1 million that’s gone missing.
They think it’s in southern New Mexico. Fernando, the son of their top hit man El Jefe, is assigned to find it and bring it back, preferably without harming anyone. But in a gunfight on the Mescalero reservation, Istee kills Fernando. That makes it a personal matter for El Jefe.
McGarrity gives readers El Jefe’s backstory. His Spanish name is Estavio Trevino and his Kickapoo Indian name Wind Stands with Bear Among the Wallows. As a feared U.S. Army Special Forces sniper he was known simply as Bear.
The book also has a back story to the Kickapoo reservations in Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass.
“I love the Kickapoo assassin. And it looks like (the Kickapoo) are a people looking for redemption. Not everybody finds it, gets it. Some pay a horrible price,” McGarrity said.
“I think the novel has a lot going for it, how people can be so easily corrupted and strive to get through that and beyond it. It’s also about the whole tragedy in the borderlands, with the drug cartels with absolute power killing who they want for whatever reason.”
McGarrity also sees “Head Wounds” as a crossroads in Istee’s life. Will Istee want to stay in law enforcement or have a more traditional family role in line with his Apache heritage? Which invites a question: Is McGarrity pondering a future Istee novel? Wait and see.
McGarrity, at 80, is not retiring from writing. He’s already planning a spin-off novel looking at Kerney’s life before he met his wife Sara, and at Sara’s family.
A drawback for readers of “Head Wounds” is having to plow through an excess of named major and minor characters, good guys and bad guys, often with their own extended family ties. Readers would have benefitted by a “list of characters” page.