(ABQ Press, 2013)

In Killer Miracle, Los Lunas author Laura Sanchez maps out a Río Arriba County murder mystery with more twists and turns than a mountain road. By turns funny, sexy, knowing, and tense, Killer Miracle’s skillfully executed story will satisfy hardcore mystery addicts, while anyone looking for a quick hit of northern New Mexico small-town life will savor the literary equivalent of a chile fix.

Killer Miracle opens with the murder of Emilio Córdova, a santero (artist who makes carved and painted images of the Catholic saints) in the fictional village of La Cuenta, a midsize town somewhere between Española and Abiquiú. Late one night in the church Emilio helps maintain, we find him attending the spectral image of an angel on the wall. Has he discovered a divine revelation in the storeroom, or did he paint it himself, blending pigment with natural water stains? There’s no time to speculate—as Emilio steps outside, locks the door, and heads home across the empty plaza, an unidentified assailant strikes him down. Just like that, two pages into the tale, Sanchez snares the reader with two nested mysteries. There are more to come.

For starters, miraculous images keep popping up around La Cuenta, a circumstance that lures Albuquerque architect Gwen Callendar onto the scene. While documenting a nearby historic house, Gwen does a favor for her beau, Mack Wilson, the state historian, who’s asked her to investigate the images. She barely gets started before police accuse Mack of murdering Emilio.

Thrust into a Nancy Drew role and hoping to prove Mack’s innocence—despite her heartbreak over the ill-considered dalliance that provides his weak alibi— Gwen soon stumbles onto a marijuana plantation, uncovers a clandestine land development scheme, and runs afoul of the shady mayor of La Cuenta. Working sometimes at odds with local police chief Ruben Lopez and sometimes in strained harmony, Gwen recruits Emilio’s grand- niece Elena, whose relationship with the mayor’s son leads the amateur sleuths into a hive of crooked connections and misinterpreted motives.

Confused? Don’t worry. Sanchez drops all the bread crumbs you need to stay on track, while her clever misdirection conceals the killer until the final pages. Along the way, Sanchez populates her story with a sampling of recognizable New Mexican types. Gwen provides the outsider perspective that most readers will identify with, while Elena, Ruben, and the rest inhabit a plausible small town, everybody’s-related community. Gallery owners and onetime La Raza militants round out the cast, as Sanchez endows even minor characters with backstories.

A longtime New Mexico resident, Sanchez has writing credits that include the young-adult novel Freaking Green and, with her husband, Alex, Adobe Houses for Today, a plan book for small, green-built homes. She has also run an architectural drafting business. Her mastery of art history and architecture provide Gwen with a surfeit of expertise to unravel the knotty puzzles surrounding her.

-Charles C. Poling

Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment

(University of New Mexico Press, 2014)

A partial list of places that La Llorona has appeared, per Benjamin Radford’s research: the banks of the Santa Fe River, a highway outside Tecolote, irrigation ditches in Corrales, villages in southern Mexico, 15th-century German folklore, scholarly conferences, a PBS family drama, a commercial for the California Milk Processor Board, and, unsurprisingly, promotions for New Mexico tourism.

The task Radford has set for himself is to bring “science and scientific methods” to bear on his home state’s fascination with all things uncanny. Looking over a list of specimens like that, all from a single 21-page chapter, you start to worry he’s going to need one heck of a petri dish.

Fortunately, the book’s notion of scientific methods turns out to be broadly inclusive, from rigorous empirical inquiry to the breezy application of common sense. Though he’s deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Radford isn’t in the myth-busting business, exactly—more like myth deconstructing, taking apart stories that have passed from oral tradition to online creepypasta to figure out what makes them tick. In the La Llorona chapter, we hear from academics, abuelitas, and Rudolfo Anaya as Radford ranges from the weeping woman’s predecessors in world mythology to a dispiritingly factual disquisition on infanticide.

Other chapters tackle subjects as seemingly far-flung as the Aztec UFO crash, which turns out to be a colorful parable on the power of good and bad journalism, and the Loretto Chapel staircase, where faith and historiography form a curious spiral of their own. The unifying thread, Radford concludes, is that all of us, believers and skeptics alike, love a good story.

-John Muller