“Shutter,” a debut novel by Ramona Emerson, is a standout example of a mystery subset called paranormal mystery. This group of mysteries can involve witches, angels, psychics, vampires, mediums and more.
In the story, Rita Todacheene, a Navajo (Diné) from Tohatchi on the Navajo Nation (Naabeehó Diné Biyaad) is the main character. Since she was a baby she could see lights and the spirits of dead people, otherwise known as ghosts.
Told in first person, Emerson takes readers back and forth in time as the mystery unfolds. The story starts as Rita, a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque Crime Lab, is recording via digital photography the remains of a hapless female victim whose parts are strewn all over highway I-40. Emerson’s first chapter is very descriptive of the process of Rita recording more than 1,000 shots of this inhuman disaster.
It turns out the victim is a woman named Erma Singleton, a young mother who is presumed to have jumped onto the freeway from an overpass. Unfortunately for Rita, she can both see and hear Erma’s cries for justice, claiming she didn’t jump – she was thrown. She is the most vocal and unrelenting ghost appearance Rita has ever experienced.
Emerson weaves through the present action snapshots of Rita’s past. She starts with her as an infant and takes her all through school until she gets her current job. A Diné who works with dead people is a real anomaly, because the Diné have strong cultural beliefs about chindi, which is the spirit that remains after a person is dead. This leads the Diné to not say the name of the dead person and instead say something such as, “the one that was married to my daughter” instead of their name. They also physically avoid being around dead people.
“Shutter,” by Ramona Emerson, is available at Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave.
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As the story unfolds and Rita’s past is exposed, readers come to understand her character. This gift of hers has been more of a curse throughout her life. Raised mostly by her grandmother on the reservation, her grandmother fears for Rita’s well-being because she is surrounded by dead people in her work. Grandmother has good cause to worry because these exposures to ghosts bring Rita migraines and nose bleeds.
As Rita gets more and more caught up in the drama of Erma’s death, the possibility of police involvement, drug cartels and danger ramps up and threatens not only Rita but her friends and family. The body count also rises, giving Rita hardly any time to rest or regroup. Her quest to rid herself of Erma leads Rita to northern New Mexico and to a missing retired cop and then back to Albuquerque where desperation leads to a bloody, deadly showdown.
Author Emerson, herself Diné from the reservation, has vast experiences in filmmaking and writing. She also worked in forensic videography, photography and editing. She has earned many accolades, including being nominated for an Emmy, named a Sundance Native Lab Fellow, a Time-Warner Storyteller Fellow and more.
Emerson has created a novel that feels grittily authentic. Her life experiences allow her to bring detail and immediacy to her characters and their thoughts and actions. Emerson also refers to actual police involved events that have happened in Albuquerque in recent years. Her depiction of places, especially on the reservation, are particularly vivid and atmospheric. This is a fascinating and absorbing novel that leaves only one big question – will Rita return for another ghostly adventure, or is her appearance only a single visit?
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.