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The Cactus Plot Murder in the High Desert, by Vicky Ramakka.

February 16, 2020

The Cactus Plot
The Cactus Plot Murder in the High Desert, by  Vicky Ramakka.  Artemesia Publishing, 2019.

4 stars

A fine mystery from the American Southwest, written by a resident who loves the land and its residents.

Vicky Ramakka grew up on a farm in upstate New York where she explored local plants and animals.  Much of her adult life has been spent in the American West where she as written and published a variety of technical, business, and freelance publications while her husband worked for the US Bureau of Land Management.  Now living in Northwest New Mexico, she focuses on writing and photographing the flora and fauna that reside in her “back yard” which she considers any place within a mile walk.  Her publications have won awards from the New Mexico Press Women.

Cactus Plot relates the experiences of Millie, a young botanist from New Jersey who comes to work as a summer intern at a nature preserve in the Four Corners region. She loves her task of checking and recording endangered plants.  When she discovers a new plot of a rare cactus, however, her life becomes complicated.  Two men, both experienced in desert life, are found dead just as Millie begins her work at the preserve. When evidence reveals that the men were murdered, Millie contributes her unique knowledge of plants to help identify the killer.  But which of her new friends around the preserve is a murderer?

The actual plot of Cactus Plot is full of the action and suspense typical of good mysteries.  What sets it apart is the landscape and the characters.  Like more well-known desert mystery writers, the unique landscape becomes a character in the book.  Because Millie as a newcomer to the desert and the agencies, she is an excellent foil for Ramakka to display her own deep and extensive knowledge. I loved the detail, though some readers might claim that all the descriptions weight down the book. I also love this region and the book returns me there. The details add to the richness of book and leave me feeling that the author is kindred soul.

In addition, the cast of characters is varied and vivid.  Many of them are them seem to be grounded in the particular landscape.  All of them appear to be good people, until one is identified as the murderer. A few of the most memorable are the well-intentioned director of the preserve who cares about the land and his agency and the motherly receptionist who sticks her nose in everything.  In and out of the preserve are wandering cowboy, a German tourist, a young Navaho from a traditional family, and a self-defined  “Broad protecting the land.”  Millie herself is an amiable and curious woman on the cusp of coming of age.

This book is not a “cozy mystery,” but it focuses on the land and people.  I hope it is the first of a series.  I highly recommend it to anyone tolerant of mysteries, especially those who love the Southwest or has enjoyed the Hillermans and other desert writers.

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