This debut novel by real-life FBI Special Agent John Fortunato won the Tony Hillerman Prize for a first novel set in the Southwest. Fortunato spent much time on the vast Navajo Nation during his time in New Mexico. This familiarity with the landscape and culture of the Diné is reflected in Fortunato’s apt portrayal of both in “Dark Reservations.” For fans of Tony Hillerman, “Dark Reservations” should be welcome addition to the mystery genre.
Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent Joe Evers is facing early retirement because he screwed up on an investigation. Also, he is still reeling from the death of his wife two years before.
This loss precipitated his current drinking problem and the end of his career. To say that Evers is a flawed, unexpected hero is an understatement.
Agent Evers has lost the respect of his coworkers and boss. So when a bullet-riddled car is discovered on the Navajo reservation and is connected to a 20-year-old cold case, Evers draws the politically-loaded assignment. He begins his investigation with the help of Navajo tribal officer Randall Bluehorse, a young, ethical and enthusiastic man who’s only been on the job for a week. They make a good team and Evers teaches the new guy techniques and shares observations while Bluehorse helps Evers recover his passion for crime-solving.
It turns out that the cold case involves the disappearance of New Mexico Congressman Arlen Edgerton, along with his secretary and driver. The congressman was under investigation at the time for corruption. Over a half million dollars of missing money was also involved, and it was assumed that he and the others had fled the country. There were also rumors of an affair.
In the here and now, the timing of the discovery of his missing car could not be worse for his wife, Grace, who is running for the office of governor of New Mexico. The election is only weeks away, and if Arlen’s body is found, the voters might suspect that Grace could have had something to do with his murder, a scenario that could keep her out of office. Evers uncovers other potential suspects whose past motives could make them desperate to keep him from finding the truth now. Evers’ suspects range from the presumed widow to the former president of the Navajo Nation, a U.S. senator and a shady Santa Fe art collector.
Evers’ investigation leads the action from the reservation to Washington D.C., Texas, northern New Mexico and Mexico. Greed, ambition and lust all play into motives in Fortunato’s complex plot. This novel also reveals the underbelly of the black market of ancient Native American artifacts. Evers discovers betrayal among his fellow law enforcement partners, which lead to grave personal loss. The cold case gets so hot that Evers ends up fighting for his survival and those he loves.
Fortunato has crafted a compelling story with multiple threads that he weaves into a tense page-turner. His convincing characters are well-formed and fascinating, especially warm, quirky and memorable characters like Mickey, Evers’ friendly barkeep, and Mark, the excitable evidence tech. But UNM professor Lawrence Trudle is a gem. His passion for all things relating to the Anasazi, now known as Ancestral Puebloans, enthusiastically aids Evers’ search for the truth.
Fortunato’s experience as a lawman adds veracity to the police procedures used in the investigation. His description of the landscape is finely portrayed, drawing readers into the world of the Southwest. The light, space and the feel of a place foreign to many become very real and mesmerizing. “Dark Reservations” and John Fortunato are welcome additions to the ranks of Western lore.