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Tularosa, by Michael McGarrity

By Weeden Nichols
February 28, 2010

My purpose today is a book review of Tularosa, by Michael McGarrity (a novel of McGarrity’s “Kevin Kerney” series, 1996, W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., New York, NY).

In my previous reviews of series-type crime/police novels (particularly James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series), I have started with background on the author. I have provided insight into particular characteristics of the author that seem to inform all the novels in the series. I have commented on the strengths and weaknesses of the author, the novels in the series, and the central characters. In this particular review, I am writing from the viewpoint of a retired Army criminal investigator – me. “CID,” in the US Army is now a generic term. There is no “Criminal Investigation Division” as such. Army CID agents are now part of the centralized US Army Criminal Investigation Command. Even though “Division” (or “Department”) is not a part of the name, “CID” is officially incorporated into the official acronym for the command – USACIDC. All this is important for the reader’s understanding of what is, or is not, included in the novel.

Michael McGarrity is a New Mexico writer, who enjoys extreme popularity in New Mexico, and who has attracted an appreciable following nationally. (I discovered the McGarrity novels after becoming a part-year resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.) There are, to date, eleven Kevin Kerney novels, of which Tularosa is the first and, possibly, weakest. Nevertheless, Tularosa is a good read on its own terms and essential to full appreciation and enjoyment of the series. Michael McGarrity is a graduate of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and former member of the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department, where he established the department’s first sex crimes unit. In no particular order, he has taught at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, served as an investigator for the New Mexico Public Defender’s Office, worked as a ranch hand, corporate consultant, college instructor, psychotherapist in private practice, and filled several key positions in the New Mexico Department of Health. As is almost uniformly the case with series-type crime/police novels, the protagonist is, almost certainly and almost entirely, an alter-ego for the author. I find no experience in McGarrity’s background regarding the US Army or the US Army CID. That lack of background (accompanied by lack of research) constitutes McGarrity’s greatest weakness from my point of view. I will address this weakness first, before going on to the enjoyment of the novel.

Early in the novel Tularosa, Kevin Kerney encounters Captain Sara Brannon, the officer-in-charge of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) CID office. WSMR is located in the Tularosa Basin; hence, the title of the novel. The relationship between Kerney and Brannon is adversarial at first (though, later in the series, Kerney and Brannon are married). It is easy to tell by internal references in the novel that it is set in the early 1980’s, long after the advent of the US Army Criminal Investigations Command in the early 1970’s, and long, long after the semi-centralization of CID into CI Groups in the 1960’s. McGarrity has Captain Brannon and the WSMR CID subordinate to the post provost marshal. (The “Provost Marshal,” a Military Police officer, usually a lieutenant colonel or, on a small post, a major, is the chief law enforcement officer on the post.) Further, McGarrity has the assigned criminal investigators as lower-grade enlisted, whereas I, as a retired CID agent, would expect about half the investigators to have been warrant officers, and a high percentage of the enlisted agents to have been fairly senior. I would have expected a warrant officer to have been in charge of a small CID office. I would not have expected CID to be preoccupied with AWOL’s (personnel absent-without-leave) and deserters (a more serious degree of being gone), as Brannon’s office seems to have been, because those offenses are not part of CID’s mandate. I would have considered it unthinkable, for a number of reasons, including considerations of legality and international relations, for a lower-grade (or any grade) criminal investigator to have been placed undercover in Juarez, Mexico. No doubt McGarrity received enough feedback as a result of Tularosa, to be aware of his errors with regard to the Army and CID; however, he had “painted himself into a corner” with regard to background for subsequent novels in his Kevin Kerney series. For example, in a later volume he mentions Sara Brannon (by then a lieutenant colonel) having residual criminal investigator credentials from her earlier assignment as a CI supervisor. I know that the only “O-grade” officers (lieutenant, captain, major, etc.) credentialed as criminal investigators were a small group of lieutenants in Colonel Henry Tufts’ short-lived experimental program in the early 1970’s (of which Brigadier General Foley, who ultimately commanded USACIDC, was an alumnus). The only officers accredited as criminal investigators are “W-grade” officers (warrant officers, like myself). I know that no-one retains valid US Army criminal investigation accreditation residually.

All that background now out of the way, McGarrity’s characters are appealing and delightfully human. The suspense is often at a chair-gripping level, and generally plausible. Police procedures and relationships are plausible and generally believable to one who has been in the business. Deviations from procedure and policy are sometimes ones with which I could sympathize, but often so extreme that I cannot but shake my head. One of the really strong areas in McGarrity’s novels is New Mexico itself – its geography and history. Tularosa contains more typographical errors than one might expect in a published novel, but remember that this is a first novel, published (surprisingly) from an unsolicited manuscript.

Synopsis of Tularosa: Kevin Kerney is medically retired as Chief of Detectives, Santa Fe Police Department, as a result of firearm wounds to knee and stomach. He is working as caretaker of a ranch, when the family of his Navajo godson, Sammy Yazzi, appeal to him for help. Yazzi has been a first-term enlisted soldier assigned to White Sands Missile Range, and is now missing. Kerney is given a temporary commission as a detective lieutenant by his old friend Andy Baca, chief of police of Las Cruces (across the pass from WSMR). He enters into an initially-awkward cooperative investigation with the Army, in the person of Sara Brannon. Yazzi’s body is eventually found, but before the story ends, a crooked Army “spook” run-amok, a high-level Mexican drug lord and dealer in stolen art and historical artifacts, and many suspenseful dangers and adventures are involved, as well as a developing love-interest between Kerney and Brannon.

If one accepts the story on its own terms and sets aside his knowledge of the real Army, the real CID, and perhaps the real world, this is a book one simply can’t put down.

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