“We think we live in a free country. But nobody in Santa Maria dares lift a finger unless she says yes. I’ve often wondered why she wanted to stay here after Brandon left her. I think it’s because she’s dictatorial by nature and doesn’t care to live where anyone else might be considered as important as herself.”
Until a few years ago, Santa Maria, New Mexico, was a sleepy artist’s colony. Then Mona Brandon swept into town with her millions and began making changes. Some residents love her, others hate her, but ignoring her is impossible.
Jean Holly has watched the whole saga unfold from the vantage point of her little jewelry shop. She manages to keep from getting involved, until one day a dead body is found in the desert. Some speculate that it’s Mona’s husband Tom, who disappeared three years ago. Though Jean isn’t interested in murder, she’s quite interested in Patrick Abbott, the out-of-town detective who gets drawn into the case. This quiet little village is about to get very lively, and Jean has a front-row seat.
It’s easy to see how the The Turquoise Shop spawned a long-running series of comic mysteries starring Jean and Pat Abbott. (I don’t think it’s too much of a shock that these two end up together.) It’s an amusing, escapist mystery that takes place in an appealing location and doesn’t ask the reader to think too hard. The most pleasant surprise here is the character of Jean, who narrates the story. Later in the series, she becomes more insecure and dependent on Pat, but at this point, she is an independent and capable woman who is more interested in her business than in her friends’ dramas. She’s also strangely uninterested in their murders, which is a big drawback in a mystery novel. Note that even the paperback edition describes this as “A Pat Abbott Mystery,” with no mention of Jean as a detective. This is sadly accurate.
Jean came to New Mexico at eighteen after the deaths of her parents. Like her, many of the residents of Santa Maria have come west to reinvent themselves. As a result, the community is tolerant of personal eccentricities, like English expat Daisy’s habit of carrying a knife in her boot. Gilbert Mason says he’s a poet and this is accepted, though no one’s ever seen him write a line. The unquestioning acceptance of so many diverse types is what makes the town such a haven.
There were always a lot of people on the plaza at noon. Today the dull light made the color and variety of Santa Maria even more striking than usual. Dark chiseled male Indian faces looked out of their pale swathing blankets. Anglos in cowman clothes were everywhere. Some were actually cowmen, but more were male or female artists, polishing off a dizzy western outfit with masses of silver and turquoise bracelets and rings. Mexican girls promenaded, fluttering sooty eyelashes and swinging neat hips.
When murder strikes, Jean belatedly realizes they’ve been taking an awful lot on faith. Anyone can be anything they want in Santa Maria, including a murderer.
The laid-back atmosphere of the town is exactly what allowed Mona Brandon to develop a foothold there. Mona has weaponized generosity; she specializes in giving with strings attached, the gift nobody really wants that benefits her more than the recipient. For example, she adopts a local Indian, Luis Martinez, to serve as a picturesque backdrop for herself. Because he’s adopted, she doesn’t have to pay him a regular wage, leaving him without an income and entirely dependent on her whims. The current target of her largesse is Michael O’Hara, a gifted artist with an inconvenient wife, Sonya.
Michael must be saved. It doesn’t matter what happens to people like Sonya. Little people don’t count. I’m fed up with them all. People like Sonya and Gilbert and Daisy seem to have been put upon this earth just to plague me.
The introduction to the Rue Morgue reprint gives more background on the real-life inspiration behind Mona’s character, socialite and patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan. Luhan turned Taos, New Mexico, into an artists’ mecca in the 1920s and her fraught relationships with writer D. H. Lawrence, his wife, and her own Native American husband echo the situation of Mona and the O’Haras (though fortunately with less tragic results). Frances Crane lived in Taos and would certainly have met or heard about this larger-than-life local figure.
Characters of Mexican and Native American descent play significant roles and are portrayed both respectfully and realistically. Two of the most striking figures in the book are Luis Martinez, Mona’s “adopted son,” and the beautiful and troubled Carmencita Dominguez, whose feud with Mona kicks off many of the murderous events that follow. Far from being purely victims or villains, these two characters have their own reasons for acting as they do. Jean initially assures the reader that there is no prejudice in Santa Maria. As the mystery progresses, she learns to her shame that behaviors she finds suspicious in her Indian and Mexican neighbors may be explained by relationships and customs that she has never bothered to learn about.
Despite Jean’s greater self-assurance, The Turquoise Shop shares two major flaws that also plague the rest of the series. First-person narrator Jean does almost nothing to communicate Pat’s personality. That’s understandable in this first book, since they have just met, but the longer the series goes on, the more irritating it becomes. Even worse, Jean does very little detection; the entire investigation is performed by Pat and the sheriff outside of her presence. Jean’s role in these mysteries is to gather information through gossip or happenstance, unwittingly pass it along to Pat, then be surprised by the solution.
Though it would be better if Jean played a more active role in solving the crime, The Turquoise Shop is a charming prewar mystery that makes the most of its colorful location. This is not even remotely a fair-play mystery, so the identity of the killer is a bit too much of a surprise. Above it all, the arresting figure of Mona Brandon dominates the book, just as her adobe mansion looms over Santa Maria, broken glass glittering on the high wall that is meant to keep evil out. As Jean learns, walls can’t protect you when you invite the evil in.
Out of the two novels I have read I much preferred The Golden Box, as its’ pace was better and the investigation got underway quicker and The Turquoise Shop was a much slower read. Moreover, Jean as a character is rather annoying as she does zero investigating and the only information she comes by is through what others tell her, which can be quite biased information, leading to quite a myopic viewpoint from her. Moreover, because Jean is so unaware of what is really going on and is so reluctant to find anything out, the readers are kept in the dark like her about so many things, which meant that for me the solution was less satisfying as although the killer was well-hidden, the solution came across as quite an info-dump, since there was a lot I wasn’t aware of.
The Turquoise Shop was reprinted by the now-defunct Rue Morgue Press, and there are still new paperback copies available.