Santa Fe police detective Fernando Lopez is on medical leave and is about to retire when he returns to the force to take one more case.
The police chief asks him to investigate the death of Kim Martin, the free-spirited wife of the mayor.
Martin’s body is found in the trunk of her car, a kitchen knife plunged into her chest.
The car is parked in a lot off Canyon Road between a sex shop and the studio of Jimmy Mackey, a hard-drinking, erratically behaving artist known for his tourist-appealing landscapes and abstract “chopped nudes.”
Mackey is the prime suspect in what is believed to be a murder. Mackey says he was too wasted to remember anything of the night before.
The mayor and the police chief want a quick resolution of the case. Lopez interviews Mackey and, eventually, his drinking buddies about their recollections of the boozing and conversations at El Farol and the arguing while stumbling back to Mackey’s place.
His pals are potter Ruby Montez, a Mackey ex-wife who still sleeps with him; Blaine Rogers, owner of the Canyon Road gallery Picasso and Company, where Mackey’s paintings are sold (or not sold); and Rose Lucero, a rookie arts writer for the local newspaper.
They are among the main characters in James C. Wilson’s “The Dead Go Fast,” the fourth volume in the popular Fernando Lopez Santa Fe Mystery series.
The police procedural has Lopez methodically, if phlegmatically, trying to track down the now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Mackey.
The chase is of incidental interest. Rather, Wilson’s intention is to write, as he put it, “a classic American detective series, character-driven.”
Lopez’s investigation allows the author to serve up background of northern New Mexico locales, which are themselves characters. There’s the changing artistic face of Canyon Road, Ghost Ranch and how it got its name, Georgia O’Keeffe’s bomb shelter (true story) in Abiquiú where Mackey thinks O’Keeffe may have hidden a painting inside a wall (fiction); and Arroyo Hondo, north of Taos, where the cops spy hippies frolicking while waiting for Mackey to show up at the home of another ex-wife.
For comic relief, Lopez has a Sancho Panza-like sidekick, police Sgt. Antonio Blake, one of several characters the author defines by size.
Blake’s “an ex-Marine who stood six-feet, seven-inches tall and weighed 280 pounds. Antonio was considered the SFPD’s enforcer.” A police department with an enforcer?
Another cop, unnamed, is “big as an NFL linebacker.”
In one scene, Rogers is described as “… a big man with a potbelly wearing Bermuda shorts and a Zozobra T-shirt.”
Many of the main characters are based on people Wilson knew when he lived in the City Different between 1973 and 1980.
“When I lived on Canyon Road as a young man,” Wilson writes in the preface, “I found a collection of like-minded writers, musicians and artists (painters, potters, sculptors, glass-blowers, you name it.)”
When he wasn’t hanging out with artist-friends at El Farol, Wilson said he spent time with others at The Green Onion.
“I found my values in Santa Fe and learned how I wanted to live my life. I’ll be forever grateful to that city,” said the 74-year-old Wilson, an Albuquerque resident.
A native of Nebraska, he received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska and a doctorate from the University of New Mexico.
Wilson is a retired professor of journalism at the University of Cincinnati.