Ancient artifacts, crime and personal issues

Poisoned Pen Press

By Leslie Doran
Special to the Herald

Skeleton Picnic is Utah author Michael Norman’s second J.D. Books mystery. Books is a Kanab prodigal son who has returned to his hometown after a stint as a Denver police detective. He is now a Bureau of Land Management law-enforcement ranger in an area of the West that has a healthy dislike of all things federal.

For generations, local residents have plumbed the countryside for Fremont and ancestral Puebloan artifacts. Even though the tradition has been illegal since the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act, the practice has been passed down in many families in the area, some of whom are Mormon in towns such as Kanab, Blanding and others in the Four Corners. When the families go hunting, they call their hobby a “skeleton picnic,” because many artifacts are found at burial sites.

The story begins when local high school history teacher Rolly Rogers and his wife, Abby, go off for a weekend “camping” trip and don’t return home in time for church on Sunday. Kane County Sheriff Charley Sutter asks for Books’ help, asking him to drive by to check on the Rogers’ home. After finding the house has been broken into, Books suspects there is a connection. The search is on for the Rogerses when their abandoned campsite is found in the Arizona Strip, near the state border. Because Rolly and Abby were well-respected in the community, there is great pressure to find them – and soon.

As the investigation proceeds, Books’ attention is diverted to personal relationships. His father, Bernie, and sister Maggie live nearby and are having difficulties. Bernie has cancer and must have surgery. Maggie’s husband, Bobby, is having financial troubles and is behaving strangely. The investigation becomes more complicated for Books when his girlfriend, Becky Eddins, an attorney, represents the prime suspect for the burglary of the Rogers’ home. Then, adding to Books’ already full plate, Sheriff Sutter asks Books to help his newest recruit, Deputy Beth Tanner, with her part of the investigation.

As evidence points to a possible trafficking ring of stolen antiquities, events take a deadly turn and put Books and his family in the crosshairs of people desperate to keep secrets and profits. The action takes Books and the rest of the law-enforcement community into the vast wilds of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on a fugitive chase with deadly results. Norman has created a tale that mirrors the real events that touched Durango in 2009. A two-year federal investigation into antiquity trafficking resulted in the indictment of 23 people in the Four Corners, including three people from Durango. This network was accused of excavating, selling and collecting stolen artifacts.

Books is a strong and dedicated hero with just enough flaws to be interesting. The action is set in a striking landscape that is rugged, harsh and beautiful and part of the remote and Wild West. Then Norman populates his story with characters who are everyday people trying to get by. Readers can relate to these individuals and their situations, especially in the current economy. Norman deftly illustrates that sometimes desperate people do things against their nature, not realizing how their actions affect the ones who love them. As Books gets closer to solving the kidnapping and burglary, he is swept into events that threaten personal disaster.

Skeleton Picnic is a story that twists and turns and pulls readers into the unique subculture of “diggers,” which has obviously been thoroughly researched. It’s a fine addition to Norman’s debut J.D. Books mystery and fans will welcome this new adventure.

Freelance reviewer Leslie Doran may be reached at sierrapoco@yahoo.com.

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