Let's first hit the rewind button and go back a bit. 1992: Noreen Ayres publishes her first mystery novel, A WORLD THE COLOR OF SALT, featuring ex-stripper, ex-cop, current forensic specialist Smokey Brandon, to critical and popular acclaim. 1994: CARCASS TRADE, the second Smokey Brandon novel, is published to even greater accolades. Then...no more novels. Absence, the color of silence. Some short stories are available if you look hard enough (worth the effort); and A WORLD THE COLOR OF SALT and CARCASS TRADE inexplicably go out of print, and thus do quite, quite well on the secondary market, and are available as audiobooks. But...no more Smokey Brandon. Until now.
Ayres is one of those authors who is perhaps better known and appreciated among her fellow authors than among the sea of readers who make up what is known as the mass market. This state of affairs will change with the publication of THE JUAN DOE MURDERS; Ayres and Brandon are back, and big time.
THE JUAN DOE MURDERS will undoubtedly be classified within the mystery genre, where it will boldly shoulder its way to the front of the pack. But this is more than a mystery novel; it is a collage of verbal photos, taken from different angles, of the social and political culture of Southern California as it exists in the year 2000 and how it has been influenced and changed by the influx of illegal immigrants into its confines. While many have attempted to chronicle the sociological changes of the area during the past century, there have only been a few --- Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and maybe one or two others --- who have done it so subtly and so well.
What makes THE JUAN DOE MURDERS a keeper, however, will be readily demonstrated to its readers within the first few pages of the novel. Let it be said here first: there is quite simply no one presently writing in the American mystery genre who can bring their readers into the middle of a crime scene the way that Ayres does. Rather than peering over shoulders or over crime scene tape, the reader is brought to the fore to experience the grit, grime, gristle, and gore that is a part of such occurrences. And the experience, of course, does not end there. Ayres's description of the ripples of consequence that radiate from the epicenter of violent acts that effect not only the victims and the perpetrators but also those who, by design or by the whim of circumstance, find themselves charged with the investigation of such dark matters.
THE JUAN DOE MURDERS, as one might guess from the (brilliant) title, is the name given to a series of apparently random, at-first-blush-unconnected, homicides involving young, unidentified Hispanic males. Brandon's involvement in the investigation goes beyond her duties as a forensic specialist; Joe Sanders, her partner and lover, has a son, David, who has a connection to the murders. As Smokey slowly gains David's confidence, she finds herself in the middle of a dilemma: if she reveals what she knows, she will betray David and possibly hurt Joe. If she does not reveal what she knows, she will be withholding evidence. David and others, in the meantime, are in terrible danger. This is a real concern, and it is not the only element of THE JUAN DOE MURDERS that makes it so real. Ayres focuses as much on Smokey's private life as she does on her professional concerns. A lot of us leave our professional lives at work --- or try to, anyway. But there is always overlap, both ways. Ayres strikes a nice balance between the two and manages to blend them in such a subtle manner that the reader does not feel pulled back and forth. A difficult trick, but here, it is made to look easy.
THE JUAN DOE MURDERS leaves some issues in Smokey Brandon's life unanswered --- as in life, things are not always resolved by the last page, if ever. I have it on good authority that Ayres's next novel will introduce a new and quite intriguing character; hopefully, she will return to Smokey and the environs of southern California at some time in the future. For now, however, THE JUAN DOE MURDERS is a welcome, long overdue visit that fills a void left open for too long. Highest possible recommendation.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 1, 2000